Pranayama (which roughly translates from Sanskrit as breath control) is one of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in ancient texts such as the Yoga Sutras. Meditation is another, along with asana (or posture) although this Sanskrit word originally meant holding a steady and comfortable seated position, and not the physical moving yoga we do today.
The wandering or busy mind clearly bothered thinkers and sages in Asia two millennia ago, just as much as it does us today. They discovered that a range of controlled breathing sequences helped them move along a path towards inner contemplation, stillness and meditation.
Today, we can benefit from similar breathing exercises to calm the mind and relax, which can in turn help relieve a range of conditions such as stress, insomnia, and even anxiety and depression.
It’s easy to practise Pranayama: you don’t need to be fit, or wear special clothes or join a class. The hard bit is setting aside just 10 or 15 minutes in your day.
We worked on this simple breathing technique in class this week: begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Turn your attention to your breathing until it feels relaxed and comfortable. Notice the movement of the body, and aim to let go of tightness and muscle tension. As you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands; as you exhale, feel the slight contraction of the abdomen. In a gentle way, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of the diaphragm.
In stage two, place your palms on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation. Mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths. Bring them to equal length over the next few breaths.
The (optional) last stage is to gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently drawing out the contraction of the abdomen. You might notice slight pauses developing at the top and bottom of the inhale. Keep the breath smooth and relaxed until your breathing ratio reaches something like 4:6 or 5:7.
You can follow this by coming to sitting with the spine straight, and quietly noticing your breath and hopefully enjoying a few moments of calm.
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