Nestled under the rib cage at the base of the lungs, the diaphragm is the body’s best breathing muscle. Here’s how it works: When we breathe in our diaphragm flattens out and moves down, creating a vacuum for air to rush into; when we breath out, our diaphragm relaxes and moves up, pushing air up and out of our lungs.While our diaphragm is always working, we often don’t use it as much or as well as we could. Think of bending over to pick up a heavy box and straining your lower back instead of squatting down and lifting from your legs. That’s what shallow breathing is like — using your chest and neck to pump air in and out when there’s a much stronger muscle (the diaphragm) made for the job that’s waiting for some action.
Yoga is an incredible practice for engaging with the breath; we are constantly reminded to return to it, witness it, and listen to it. But off the mat it can be easier to let the thread of breath slip away.
Practicing diaphragmatic breathing is a super simple way to breathe more deeply wherever we are, immediately increasing the amount of oxygen in our system and blood in our brains.
First, try it lying down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in, following the movement of the diaphragm as it fills with air. If you’re breathing into your diaphragm your top hand will stay where it is while your bottom hand will rise as the belly fills. On the exhale, follow the movement of the diaphragm in and up. Continue until you feel euphoric.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of diaphragmatic breathing in a supine position, try it sitting and standing. The more aware you become of the sensation of deep, vital breaths, the easier it is to recognize when you move back into shallow, chest-centered breathing. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is an absolutely ace relaxation tool to have in your arsenal. Try it the next time you feel unfocused, tired, irritated, disconnected or just want to get a little high, au natural.
Beyond the practice of sipping water throughout the day lies a realm of hydration that encompasses the entire body. Soak in water, nix the plastic single use bottles, and practice ancient yogic pranayama techniques that will leave you in tip top shape.
1. RIGHT NUTRITION: Sip Room Temperature Water And Warm Herbal Tea Throughout The Day
To stay hydrated, focus on assimilation rather than quantity. Drink water when you are thirsty and sip instead of chug. If you are drinking too much water at one time, you may find yourself dehydrated despite your efforts. Several trips to the restroom per hour suggest that you need to slow down. After all, our bodies can only assimilate about 2-3 cups of water per hour, or 200 ml (a little less than 1 cup) every 15 minutes.
Consuming too much water at one time causes the kidneys to overwork, placing unwanted stress on the body.
Help your body absorb water by adding chia seeds, fresh ginger, and/or a small pinch of sea salt to your water. Although too much salt in the diet is dehydrating, salt is actually essential to your body’s water absorption process. Learn more here: The Skinny on Salt
Once you are sipping instead of chugging, you can go deeper by considering our top Ayurvedic recommendations. Ayurvedic science recommends consuming only room temperature or warm beverages, which means that ice water can become an occasional indulgence rather than a regular practice. Ayurvedic practitioners also suggest consuming little or no water at mealtime. Drinking ice water and taking in too much liquid during mealtimes cools or dilutes our digestive fire (or Agni). Since so much of our health depends on healthy digestion, this is sage advice. That said, we know that leaving ice out of your beverage is not always possible… or desirable. To begin, consider applying the 70-30 rule. If 70% of the time, you are drinking room temperature water or warm tea, you are doing superb!
Last but not least, watch out for sugar and caffeine in your bevies!
If you are drinking coffee regularly, you may need to sip even more water throughout the day to make up for the dehydrating effects of caffeine. Sugar is another beast to contend with. The body converts sugar to stored fat and wreaks havoc on your insulin levels. If you find water difficult to drink, consider adding some fruit or sprigs of mint to your water to add flavor.
Here’s the summary: Drink room temperature water or tea throughout the day when you are thirsty. Pay attention to your current habits, especially around caffeine and sugar, and begin to replace old habits that no longer serve you in your life with new, healthier habits.
2. Right Movement: Flush Out The Toxins
Hydration is about balance in the body. If you are practicing yoga asanas and exercising regularly, you will help your body flush out toxins and prevent water retention.
Hydrating after yoga practice and exercise will help you to receive the full benefits of the practice. Yoga asana and exercise require adequate nutrition, including additional water post workout. Replenish your body with healthy foods and water post-movement and your body will thank you.
3. Right Relaxation: Sip and Soak Away Your Stress
As the days get longer and the weather warms up, we tend to spring into action, sometimes overextending ourselves. Taking time away from chaos and turning inwards to meditate and relax can help our bodies to absorb and assimilate the water and food we consume. Pay particular attention to relaxation during hot days and plan for sipping water or herbal tea all day long.
Consider booking some bodywork, soak in water, get some gentle exercise by taking a swim in cooling water, and head to bed early. The result? Increased energy and ojas, the Ayurvedic term for the vital essence that supports our immune systems, vitality, libido, and strength.
4. Right Breathing: Practice Sitali
Deep in the Himalayas, ancient sages observed and imitated the world around them in the noble attempt to master body, breath, and mind. They noticed the curve of a bird’s lower beak, a new green leaf uncurling, and the hiss of a cobra—and emulated those shapes and sounds in a practice called sitali (the cooling breath). In this pranayama, the inhalation is moistened as it passes through the curl of the tongue (alternately described as a bird’s beak and an uncurling leaf), so that you are “drinking” water-saturated air.
Sitali cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and soothes a pitta imbalance.
Besides building breath awareness, this practice is said to calm hunger and thirst and cultivate a love for solitude. Sitali also cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and, in the parlance of ayurveda, soothes a pitta imbalance, which is common in the summer months. In addition, this practice reduces fatigue, bad breath, fevers, and high blood pressure. Learn how to practice Sitali: Click Here
Did you know that the Pacific Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch have doubled in size in the past decade? We have plastic islands out in the ocean twice the size of Texas that are made up of tiny pieces of plastic that look just like fish food (opposed to a solid mass of plastic). Animals mistake the plastic for food. Plus this toxic soup disturbs marine food webs and ecosystems. Here’s one simple thing you can do to make a difference: Nix the single-use plastic water bottles and replace these with an eco-friendly reusable water bottle. Fill the bottle with tap water and sip throughout the day to stay hydrated.
If you love swimming and are interested in deepening your pranayama practice on the mat, you are in for a wonderful surprise. Whether you swim laps or enjoy water recreationally, you probably recognize that swimming can transform the way you feel. Similar to yoga, the before and after effects are astounding! A powerful, low-impact activity, swimming can also become a incredible pranayama.
Pranayama refers to breathing exercises or breath control. Breath control is one of the very first things we learn during swim lessons by blowing bubbles into the pool. Aside from yoga practice and swimming, there are few places in life where we intentionally control our breathing. With intention and awareness, we can transform swimming into yoga.
What was that about pranayama? Most of the time, we breathe automatically. During yogic breathing exercises, we control the breath to create more energy or prana in our bodies. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga = eight limbs) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Ashtanga Yoga is a pathway to ultimate freedom and bliss. Although modern-day yoga is often dominated by yoga asanas or postures, breathing exercises are given equal importance in the Yoga Sutras.
How do we practice pranayama while swimming? When we swim, we hold our breath to go under water and then slowly let the air out while we propel ourselves forward or backward. When we surface, we take another big breath and continue the pattern we have started. The more rhythm we create with our breathing, the more ease we feel when swimming. In essence, we learn to coordinate our breath with movement, which is the foundational concept in a yoga vinyasa class. In fact, the word vinyasa means “a method in yoga in which movements and breath are coordinated.” Paying attention and controlling our breath during yoga practice and swimming alike has the capacity to create a vinyasa, or a moving meditation.
Swimming and pranayama are mutually beneficial.
Practicing swimming requires breath control and rhythmic breathing, which will deepen your yoga practice on the mat. And practicing pranayama on land can help to enhance your swimming techniques and lung capacity in the pool. Win-win.
That said, you may be thinking to yourself: I swim all summer and even during the other months of the year, but my mind races while I swim and I am hardly aware of how I am breathing… I am on autopilot. How is this like yoga?
Like the ease we feel peddling and balancing once we have learned to ride a bike, breath control while swimming becomes automatic. Even though we are raising our energy levels and opening energy channels in our body when we swim regardless of our intention, awareness and mindfulness gradually shifts our experience in the water.
The Yoga of Swimming = Swimming + Intention + Awareness
Without intention and awareness, yoga resembles stretching, calisthenics, sitting, or even napping. Similarly, without mindfulness, swimming is the act of moving through water. Intention and awareness transforms these movements and postures into what we call yoga. Yoga is the union or yoking of mind with spirit.
When you cultivate mindfulness and intention, swimming can become yoga, leaving you with a deep sense of inner peace, freedom, and even bliss! Ready to dive in?
Three Ways to Practice the Yoga of Swimming:
In the pool: How does your physical body feel before and after you swim? What happens to your energy before and after you swim? Do you feel pulsing, streaming or tingling sensations? How do you feel emotionally before and after your swim? Notice your state of mind before you enter the water. Then notice your state of mind at the end of your practice.
On the mat: While you are practicing yoga on your mat, imagine you are moving through water. Anytime you expand (raise your arms, lift your heart, head, or hips), inhale deeply. And anytime your contract (fold forward, root into the ground, sink your hips, lower your hands), slowly exhale. When you hold postures, create long inhalations. Imagine you are about to dive under the water at the top of your inhalation and pause. Then slowly exhale. At the bottom of your exhalation, imagine you are still under water and pause. Continue this breathing pattern. With a little intention and imagination, you can use your experience in the water to deepen your yoga on the mat.
Practice yoga by the water: Practice yoga by the water. If you are by a pool, take your standing balancing postures into the shallow end of the pool. Then, end your asana practice with savasana on a floatation device or lying down next to the water. Try meditating near water after you swim or practice yoga.
*Be sure to use safety precautions while practicing by water, especially the ocean, and have fun!
As the days heat up, there are some among us who are so eager for air conditioning they’ll duck into a random store or see a movie they don’t even care about, just to cool down. I happen to love the summer heat — give me a skimpy sundress and a balmy (read: sweaty!) rooftop party or long day by the pool in the blazing sun, and I’m in heaven! That said, there are a few essential oils I keep in my purse in case I need to freshen up after a yoga class (en route to said rooftop party).
Essential oils are the pure essence of a particular plant, extracted via distillation, and typically “taken” by deeply inhaling them through the nose, or placing a few drops on particular points on the body. Depending on the plant, they are good for everything from aiding in digestion to soothing a bee sting. Some oils have especially-powerful cooling effects. As in, literally bringing one’s temperature down. So, for the dog days of summer, these three essential oils are my top summer must-haves… pardon the pun.
Fragrant and Cooling Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender — This soft, powdery, floral scent is one of my favorites, perhaps because it is so widely applicable. According to Ayurveda, Lavender decreases heat in the body, and also quells heat in the mind. Inhaling a few drops directly from the bottle or rubbed between your palms will not only cool you down on a hot day, but you can also apply a drop to your temples or forehead for helps alleviating those headaches caused by too much heat. It’s also uplifting, which helps with that sluggish feeling we can sometimes suffer from during heat of summer. Another neat trick for a particularly sweaty day — a few drops dabbed under your arms freshens you up and kills germs at the same time.
Peppermint — Just like a tall glass of iced tea, Peppermint essential oil offers frosty and refreshing relief. Its primary constituent, menthol, provides the powerful cooling effect, whether inhaled or applied to the body. Just opening the bottle and taking a sniff works wonders, but you can also apply a couple drops to the bottom of your feet or a drop to the back of the neck for an icy, tingly sensation (it’s highly potent, so really, just a drop rubbed between the hands and then patted on the back of the neck. And, it should not be used topically on children younger than 7 unless diluted in water). You can choose Spearmint essential oil or Eucalyptus as well, as both contain that integral menthol, and all three are lovely to use for cooling compresses – just add a few drops to water and soak a couple washcloths. They can be used right away or popped in the fridge and pre-chilled and then pressed on your forehead or the back of your neck.
Sandalwood — Sandalwood oil has long been prized in India — where it gets pretty darn hot — for its cooling, calming qualities. Its woody, earthy and ancient scent offers a more savory and subtle alternative to the floral qualities of Lavender, and Sandalwood more gentle to the skin than Peppermint. In Ayurveda it is known to cool Pitta Dosha, or literally quell the flames of the fire element – restoring calm and clear-headedness as heat and frustration arise. In Ayurveda Sandalwood is also said to “stop excessive sweating,” so again, this is one to dab under the arms on the hottest of days. Even just one drop smudged on the forehead/third eye area goes a long way. With Sandalwood, sustainable sourcing is incredibly important, as it gets rarer and rarer in the world. I recommend purchasing from Floracopeia, you’ll be getting the highest quality oil, and also know it’s being sustainably harvested and replanted.
Much like the chakras, the bandhas are an esoteric, unseeable internal-energy system. This makes them pretty hard to describe, let alone use, but chances are you’ve wondered about them if they’re not already part of your yoga tool kit.
Let’s break them down.
Bandha means lock or bond in Sansksrit. There are three bandha spots in the body that correspond to three chakras, or energy centers. From the ground up they are:
1st chakra: Mula Bhanda (Root Lock)
3rd chakra: Uddiyana Bhanda (Navel Lock)
5th chakra: Jalandara Bhanda (Chin Lock)
When a bandha is engaged it stops the flow of energy, in the form of breath, to that part of the body; when a bandha is released it floods that area with extra energy.
Why use them?
We’ve nested this post under the pillar of Right Breathing because the energy dynamics at play when the bandhas are engaged and released are pranayama energies. By manipulating breath—in some sense, the body’s greatest natural drug—we’re able to shift our internal landscape. Think about the heat-building qualities of Breath of Fire, the balancing effects of Alternate Nostril and the cooling capabilities of Sitali—all ways to enhance or shift our experience.
The same is true of the bandhas. When we incorporate the bandhas into our yoga and pranayama practices they enhance and change the nature of the poses, essentially kicking them up a notch. Simultaneously, they support the pranamayakosha—one layer of the energetic body—in deep cleaning by encouraging the flow of energy up (toward the crown chakra, seat of enlightenment) instead of down.
For the purposes of this post we’ll explore Mula Bandha, the root lock. Mula bandha is said to cut through brahma granthi, internal resistance to change that resides in our first chakra. Muladhara chakra is the one responsible for keeping us grounded and safe, so it makes sense that we’d have a natural aversion to anything unknown.
How to Engage Mula Bhanda
First, release any weirdness around talking or thinking about the sex organs—they’re what this pose is all about.
A true root lock is very subtle. It takes time, practice and the help of a good teacher to really “get it,” so, in the beginning, cultivate a relationship with your pelvic floor and just get used to playing around down there.
Engage the muscles you use when you are trying not to pee.
For women, contract the muscles behind the cervix, at the base of your pelvic bowl, like a Kegel exercise.
For men, contract at the perineum, the sensitive spot between the anus and the testes.
Think about drawing the base of the pelvic floor up.
Start with big contractions. Initially, your anus will likely lift into the body, but over time, with refinement, it will stay neutral.
Sit on your heel or atop tennis ball. Position in at your perineum and roll over it while contracting the pelvic floor to feel the difference between anal and perineal contractions.
Like we said, it’s subtle, but the act of putting pressure in this zone will make Mula Bhanda feel more natural.
For women, this perineal contraction is happening while also drawing the vaginal walls in and up.
As you get more comfortable, explore Mula Bhanda from a deep squat, Goddess Pose, or Warrior 1.
The implications of Mula Bhanda on your yoga practice are manifold. Some schools recommend engaging it throughout your entire practice, a constant reminder to lift up and stay light. It’s especially useful in standing sequences or balancing poses, any time you want to shore up your foundation.
From a meditative standpoint, Mula Bhanda means bringing our senses in; it’s a cousin to the practice of Pratayahara, the fixing of our internal gaze inward. When we restrain our outward gaze we tune into our inner landcape and strengthen the third eye, our energetic seat of insight and intuition.
Check back for future posts on Uddiyana and Jalandara Bhanda.
Leaves blanket the ground creating an artful display of fall colors. Hearty root crops and winter squash are abundant at the farmer’s market. According to Ayurvedic wisdom, autumn is the vata season, known for its cool, light, dry, moving, and erratic qualities. There is incredible momentum, movement, and vitality that occurs with when the wild vata winds blow, generating transformation. And yet, we can also find ourselves forced to stop in our tracks as colds and the flu spread through schools and workplaces like wildfire during this time of year. To go forth with steady confidence and healthy bodies, favor a vata pacifying lifestyle which boosts the immune system and brings the body, mind, and spirit into balance. Check out these four tips to be well and stay calm.
One: Begin to see food as medicine.
Incorporate a vata pacifying diet this fall, which consists of foods that are warm, moist, smooth, and nourishing. Fresh, cooling crudites were perfect for the hot summer, but the crisp fall air invites forth a natural desire to nourish ourselves with warming butternut squash soups, more protein, and hearty stews. If you are already in the practice of eating fresh, seasonal foods and shopping at the farmer’s market, you may notice the natural shift toward heartier produce that balances the vata dosha.
Freshly cooked veggies are easier for our bodies to digest and assimilate than raw produce. Minimize stress and support easy digestion by consuming lightly cooked foods that are warming and soothing. Sip ginger tea with meals to aid digestion, or make a healing, anti-inflammatory turmeric-honey tea to support the immune system. Go deeper with this recipe from 101 Cookbooks.
Begin to see your vegetables as vessels for healing herbs and spices. Each of the ancient, lasting cuisines around the world incorporate delicious, healing herbs and spices into meals. Oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary make their way into Italian sauces. Turmeric, cumin, ginger, and cayenne spice up Indian fare.
Food is so much more than fuel and nutrients. Many of the aromatic herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-fungal properties. As we spice up our recipes and savor the incredible flavor of international cuisine, our meals become medicine that support the immune system, keeping seasonal colds and the flu at bay.
Two: Wake up before sunrise and create a morning routine.
Routine balances the vata dosha. The early morning hours before sunrise are the vata time of day, inspiring movement and energy. Practice pranayama, sun salutations, yoga postures, and meditation first thing in the morning to stimulate your body’s cleansing systems and set the tone for your day. Sip room temperature or lukewarm water with lemon first thing to stimulate and balance your digestive tract.
Poses that work on the colon (the bodily seat of vata), intestines, pelvis, lumbar spine, and sacroiliac balance vata by bringing energy back down into the base of the torso. Spinal twists and inversions of all kinds soothe this dosha. Sitting and standing forward bends are choice poses, particularly for insomnia; boat, plank, staff, and plow are also powerful vata-reducers. To support grounding, work with standing poses such as mountain, triangle, warrior, and tree. Avoid back bends, such as bow, cobra, pigeon, and arch, which increase vata, or hold them briefly. If you enjoy vinyasa, do sun salutations S-L-O-W-L-Y. Let child’s pose lead you back to your innate innocence and trust. End your practice with a long Savasana (20–30 minutes); it is really okay to do NOTHING for a while.
A self-massage with warming sesame oil may provide the moisturizing nourishment your skin needs to maintain its healthy glow this fall. Plus self-massage boosts the immune system, improves circulation, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body and mind. Follow the sesame-oil massage with a relaxing bath or shower. For more information on balancing your skin and body, check out Five Pillars’ recent article by Erika: Defeating Fall Dryness.
Four: Practice alternate nostril breathing.
Alternate nostril breathing is very balancing year-round, but particularly supportive during the vata season. Check out this video to go deeper:
For many of us, the end of the year and the start of the new can be both uplifting and exhausting. Travel, meal planning, angst over consumerism, and dark days (although they are getting lighter!) may contribute to the latter, while the feeling of working with a clean slate, having the opportunity to give to and receive from dear ones, and allowing time for introspection can give us a loving boost.
Whether we’re reveling in the fresh start or recovering from end-of-year commitments and festivities, we’ve all got stuff to clear.
Enter Lion’s Breath, Simhasana.
“Stretches away tension lines in the face. Helps prevent wrinkling.”
As you can see from the bold claims on this OG poster (Yoga for no wrinkles!), Lion’s Breath has long had a reputation for relieving stress. More recently, Colleen Saidman Yee reccomended the posture for releasing trauma and anxiety in her excellent book, Yoga for Life.
Here’s How It’s Done
As a pranayama practice, Simhasana can be done in any posture. You may release the breath in heat-building poses like Utkatasana, or in a shape that exposes the throat, like Cow or Upward Facing Bow. We explored Jalandhara Bandha in a recent post, where the throat is constricted and the chin and sternum meet. Lion’s Breath is that bandha’s physical and energetic opposite. Here the focus is on expelling air forcefully through a wide-open mouth and opening the front side of the body.
The classic posture with breath is taken like this:
Sit on your knees and cross the front of one ankle over the back of the other, letting the feet splay out to the sides. Gently snuggle the perineum onto the top heel.
Flatten your palms against your knees, fingers spread wide—think lion’s paw. Press down firmly to lenghten and straighten you arms.
Breathe deeply through the nose. Pause at the top and open your mouth wide; stretch your tongue out, tip curling toward the chin; lift your brows to widen your eyes; contract the muscles in the front of your throat, and exhale out the mouth with an audible “HAAAAA.”
Repeat two or three times before changing the cross of the legs and roaring for the same number of times with the other heel on top.
There are two options for where to set the drishti in this posture. One is right between the eyebrows, gazing up toward the third eye. This technique, Bhrumadhya Drishti, means “mid-brow gazing”–bhru is Sanskrit for brow while madhya means middle–and is often used in meditation to acheive dharana. Another possibility is to focus the gaze at the tip of the nose in Nasikagra Drishti, another common gaze for meditators looking to go deep; here nasa means nose and agra meas the foremost point, which, in this case, is the tip of the nose.
However you sit or wherever you choose to gaze, use Simhasana to move energy, clear what feels stuck, or as practice for saying what it is you want to say. A hallmark of this pose is that you will look fiercely ridiculous while doing it; you could also think of yourself as looking ridiculously fierce.
We’ve been exploring the bandhas in a series of interconnected posts. If you want to catch up, our 101s on Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha are here and here.
After the pelvic floor and the navel, we arrive at the chin.
Etymologically, Jalandhara Bandha breaks down to jal, Sanskrit for throat; jalan for net; and dharan for stream or flow. Jalandhara Bandha is the lock, or hold, that controls the flow of energy in the neck, throat, and chin.
This bandha’s corresponding chakra is Visuddha, the fifth chakra centered at the throat. Visuddha deals with openness and communication—how willing or able are you to speak your mind and practice Right Intention through speech and listening?
Poses that expose the throat, like Ustrasana, and ones that draw energy in through constriction, like Shoulder Stand, are beneficial for opening a blocked fifth chakra. Jalandhara bandha happens naturally in throat-constricting poses: consider the double chin of Bridge or the immobility of the head, neck and throat in Halasana, Plow Pose.
While a chin lock is part of certain poses, Jalandhara bandhaon its own is most commonly used as part of a pranayama practice. At the end of a round of Kapalabhati you retain the breath by engaging all the bandhas from the ground up, ending with a chin lock to keep any air from leaking out of the nose or mouth. Or, when practicing Uddiyana Bandha in a pose like Goddess, you would seal off the throat by bringing the chin and chest to meet. That’s Jalandhara bandha.
How to Find Jalandhara Bandha
Sit tall in a comfortable pose.
Use your breath to fill and lift your sternum. On your exhale, draw your front ribs toward your spine.
Breathe in deeply to lift up the crown of the head and the roof of the mouth.
Retain the breath as you lower your chin to your sternum and lift your sternum to your chin.
Hollow the front of the throat by lengthening the back of your neck and releasing your shoulders.
Think of heart openers like Bridge or Wheel to find the complementary lift of the sternum.
If the chin and chest don’t meet, don’t force it.
Release the retention with a long, slow exhale.
On empty float the chin off and away from the chest.
Like all bandha practices, start slowly with Jalandhara and never retain breath to the point of discomfort. In addition to connecting you with your throat chakra and communication center, engaging Jalandhara bandha may help to regulate the circulatory and respiratory systems and balance our thyroid function and metabolism. And, as it’s an action that draws the gaze down and in it’s a quick way to calm the mind and remove ourselves from external stressors.
A few weeks ago we dove into the Bandhas, a series of energetic locks in the body. We’re working from the base of the pelvis up, so read our first post for a refresher on Mula bandha, the Root Lock.
The next bandha is Uddiyana, the Navel Lock. In Sanskrit Uddiyana means to fly or rise up. On a physical level, your diaphragm, stomach and abdominal organs lift up when this bandha is engaged. Energetically, you’ll feel uplifted.
In the chakra system, Uddiyana bandha corresponds with Manipura, the third chakra; fiery and powerful, Manipura is the seat of our personal will and motivation. Picture it located at the solar pelxus and imagine the energy of fire and the sun. If you’ve ever practiced Breath of Fire you’ve connected with the third chakra and experienced an element of Uddiyana bandha. In that breath the belly contracts in and back with each exhale, a quick and less concentrated version of the abdominal engagement that occurs in Uddiyana.
How to Engage Uddiyana Bandha
Before you begin, be sure to:
Practice on an empty stomach after a complete exhalation.
Start your inquiry in a standing position. Over time, you can explore this bandha while seated.
Stand with your feet about hips’ width distance apart.
Take a slight bend in the knees and rest your hands above your kneecaps.
Keep your arms straight but round your torso forward.
Breathing through the nose, inhale deeply and exhale quickly and forcibly. Use your abdominal muscles to push as much air as possible out of your lungs.
Relax and stay empty.
Perform a mock inhalation. Expand your rib cage as if you were inhaling, but don’t take in any air. This will pull your abdominal muscles up and hollow the belly.
Tuck your chin slightly toward your chest. We’ll go into this posture, Jalandhara Bandha, in more depth in our next post.
Hold on empty until you feel any strain, tension, or tightness—anywhere from five to 15 seconds for beginners. The hold should feel effortless.
Slowly release the hold and inhale normally.
Perform several more rounds, keeping an eye on any dizziness or lightheadedness, alternating with normal breaths between each round.
If you’re looking to float, fly, lift, twist, or invert in your asana practice with less effort, Uddiyana bandha is key. This is a hold that’s all about rising up.
Given all the focus on the gut and its connection to the chakra in charge of digestion, it’s no surprise that Uddiyana bandha is an effective remedy for constipation, indigestion or bloating. It tones the inner abdominal muscles and serves as the yogic equivalent of crunches (i.e. flat abs). Try it when you need to beat fatigue, lethargy or stress.
Earlier this week we wrote about caffeine’s influence on the body (CliffsNotes’ version: It’s a mood-altering drug.) and suggested a few caffeine-free beverage recipes to try instead of coffee. The caffeine-free and mood-altering substance we didn’t mention was breath. Regular pranayama practices, as part of an intentional morning routine, may eliminate the need for coffee or energy-boosters entirely.
Try a morning practice that uses breathwork to prepare the body for meditation. Commit to a length of time that feels comfortable to you and feel free to adjust the minutes you spend on each component. If you’re new to the practices outlined below, start with five minutes and then work your way up to a 10, 20 or 30 minute practice.
If possible, let this be the first thing you do in the morning, before you check your phone or engage in conversation. For a really mindful morning, wake up with oil pulling and tongue scrapping, and then settle into a comfortable seat.
Morning Pranayama Practice
Seated well and free of distractions, start with Alternate Nostril Breath. For a five-minute total practice, do two minutes of this pranayama.
Next, take one minute of Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire. A long spine is especially crucial here. Work with your arms extended overhead in a wide V with your thumbs extended and your fingers curled into your palms; or rest the backs of your hands on your knees, palms up, thumb and index finger touching in Chin Mudra.
When that round of breathing is done, sit in silence. If you’re short on time, dedicate two minutes to stillness. Otherwise, stay for as long as you like.
As you gain comfort and familiarity with this practice, try to weight it a little more heavily toward meditation. The breathwork here serves as a way to subtly focus and balance the mind—that would be the work of Nadi Shodana—and then purify the container—the work of Skull Shining Breath or Breath of Fire. Those two, especially, work like an espresso shot on the nervous system: practicing them helps everything come into sharper focus.
For a 10- or 20- or 30-minute practice, try the following breakdown:
Alternate Nostril ~ 3 / 5 / 6 minutes
Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire ~ 2 / 3 / 4 minutes
Seated Meditation ~ 5 / 12 / 20 minutes
If possible, commit to the practice for a week and see what, if anything shifts. If you can ditch coffee that week, too, go for it. Here’s to getting high off your own supply.
Have you ever wished you had your own portable A/C unit? Or that you could cajole someone into following you around with a giant fan? If you haven’t, then you’ve probably never spent time on a New York City subway platform in the summer, hoping not to sweat through your shirt before you make it to work.
If you have, this pranayama practice has got you covered. A few weeks ago we wrote about balancing pitta — the hot and volatile Ayurvedic dosha associated with summer — and Sitali breath is another tool to help bring your fire and water elements back into equilibrium.
Sitali Pranayama is often translated as “cooling breath.” It calms the nervous system, quenches thirst, adds moisture to the body and lowers your body temperature.
How To Practice Sitali
Find a comfortable seat (or stance, if you’re on the subway platform).
Take a few diaphragmatic breaths to get the oxygen flowing.
Open your mouth and make an “O” with your lips.
Curl your tongue, making a little alleyway for air to enter in, and stick your tongue out just a bit.
If you can’t curl your tongue, curse your genetic makeup and simply slide your flat tongue out between your lips. This is called Sitkari breathe and will do the trick just as well.
Inhale through your mouth like you’re drinking from a straw.
Close your mouth and exhale completely through your nose.
Focus on the air entering in and the cooling sensation against your tongue. Breath in deeply enough for that breath to expand into your lungs.
Continue for two to three minutes, pausing if need to take a break.
Eventually you can work your way up to a longer practice, breathing through your pursed mouth and out the nose for 10 minutes.
End the breath practice gradually, giving yourself time to stay in your new, cool headspace before entering back into the heat.
Over the next few months we’ll #GoDeep into Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path. If you’re just checking in, be sure to read our intro post on the path itself and its first limb, the yamas. So far we’ve also covered the niyamas and asana.
Pranayama, the fourth limb on Patanjali’s path, acts as the gateway between the first three (yamas, niyamas and asana) and the final four (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi). In the first three limbs we are focused on the corporeal body and our place in the world; in the latter limbs we shift our focus to our internal landscape.
Pranayama is tied to both worlds, bridging the physical and the spiritual. The word breaks down to prana — life force — and yama, which, taking it back to the first limb, means a reining in or a mindful monitoring of our thoughts and conduct. But ask another Sanskrit scholar and she might highlight the word ayama tucked in there, too, which translates to extendingor drawing out.
Pranayama, then, is a mindful controlling of the breath, the source of our life energy; it is also the extension of that vital force, the act of fostering and stimulating it. However you slice it etymologically, pranayama is about getting intimate with what keeps us moving. Practices like Breath of Fire and Alternate Nostril Breathing (get breathing with our how-to guides) ask us to retain, quicken, watch, manipulate and imagine the breath in unusual and initially uncomfortable ways. The result is a greater awareness of our own organism and of the dynamic life force at work within it. By feeding our breath we grow it, strengthening the respiratory system and soothing the nervous system. More prana in our systems makes us more vibrant and more dynamic. As Iyengar once said, “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of days but by the number of his breaths.”
Alongside asana, pranayama can also serve as a potent tool for purification. By generating tapas in the body and by making space for prana to flow freely, these practices cleanse and condition from the inside out. And, as the body settles and relaxes into its rightful state — healthy and unblocked — the mind is free to dive deeper into meditation and reflection. We’ll revisit this idea in our next Eight Limbs post on pratyahara, the withdrawal of our senses from the outside world.
For more on pranayama take a look through our articles on Right Breathing; clearly we are pranayama advocates, seeing as intentional breath is one of our five pillars! And consider this quote from Krishnamacharya, the widely acknowledged father of modern yoga: “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.”
Photos: Iyengar in a breath vortex found here; Travis Bedel’s anatomical collage found here.
In our last breathwork post we covered Alternate Nostril Breath, a harmonizing practice designed to balance the left and right sides of the body. This week we explore Kapalabhati and Breath of Fire, two similar and dynamic pranayamas that significantly increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and the brain. Stimulating and detoxifying, they can clear the head and sinuses and fire up the belly — perfect for alleviating springtime allergies and general sluggishness.
While the terms Kapalabhati and Breath of Fire are often used interchangeably, they are slightly different. Breath of Fire is prescribed in Kundalini yoga on its own (eventually building up to a 31-minute practice) or as a jetpack to boost many kriyas. Kapalabhati translates to Skull Shining Breath and is practiced with the intention of clearing the cobwebs of the mind — imagine polishing a fogged-up window until you can see through it clearly.
The main difference is in the length and nature of the inhale. In BOF they are the same length. In Kapalabhati the exhale is longer and the inhale is passive; essentially it happens on its own.
Here’s what you need to know about both:
Breath is rapid, rhythmic and continuous.
Inhales and exhales are through the nose.
Breath is powered from the navel and the solar plexus through rapid stomach pumps: On the exhale, air is expelled through the nose by pressing the navel back toward the spine. On the inhale, the belly relaxes and the diaphragm flattens down
For Kapalabhati, focus on the exhale; it should be forceful but not forced. The vacuum created by the exhale will naturally lead to an inhale; teachers often call this a passive inhale.
In Breath of Fire, work toward producing inhales and exhales of equal length.
This breath can be fast and rigorous but the body stays relaxed, especially the face. No wrinkles!
As you become more accustomed to them, these pranayamas can be practiced for long periods of time; but start small, one to three minutes — this is powerful stuff.
How to do them:
Find a comfortable sit with a long spine, head gently inclined toward your chest.
Set your attention at your third eye, just between the brows, with eyes gently closed.
Hands can rest on your knees, fingers in maha-chin mudra (index fingers under the thumbs); or, to turn up the volume a bit, arms extended in a wide V over your head, fingers tucked into your palm with your thumb stuck out like a cosmic hitchhiker.
Take a regular inhale and exhale to begin. Then, inhale partway and begin breathing rapidly while engaging the belly, letting it move in with the exhale and out with the inhale.
When you’re done, draw a deep breath in, retain the air in until it no longer feels comfortable, and then slowly release air through the nose.
Sit quietly and observe the effects.
Why do it?
Breath of Fire and Kapalabhati are incredibly potent practices for arriving in the present moment, a snap to attention.
Here are some additional benefits:
Expands lung capacity
Strengthens the nervous system
Balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
Powers up the third chakra
Energizes blood flow and circulation
Delivers oxygen to the brain, resulting in improved focused and a natural state of calm awareness
Strengthens the immune system
Aids in digestion
As noted above, these are powerful practices, so begin with short sessions and rest if you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Neither of these pranayamas are recommended for pregnant ladies and they’re uncomfortable to practice on a full stomach. As with any pranayama practice it’s wise to study with a teacher. Energy moves up and out in unexpected ways, so a safe container for experimentation is really vital. Practice them on their own, as part of your meditation, or add to an asana like plank or utkatasana to heat things up.
Modern medicine is just catching up to the ancient yogis on a variety of subjects, including quantifying the incredible healing benefits of breathing exercises or breath control – what’s called pranayama in Sanskrit. Science and research are now showing that intentional breathing balances the brain and reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue — all while boosting the mood, metabolism, relaxation, and inner peace. That’s a pretty great trade-off if you ask us! Research indicates breathing exercises also have an impact on chronic issues such as blood pressure, cardio vascular health and even fibromyalgia.
The common phrase “Just breathe” takes on a whole new gravitas with these findings.
Life in the 21st century is fast-paced, with endless distractions, plus we spend most of our days working indoors. The body’s natural healing rhythms are affected by modern-day lifestyles, including the breath. Shallow breathing has become the norm. The effects of shallow breathing are less than ideal, including fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression and illness.
On the flip side, consider how you breathe when you take a walk in nature. The breath naturally deepens, filling the body with oxygen, leaving you feeling relaxed and energized.
So – we already instinctually know that deep breathing feels better. Now for some science:
Breath for Detoxification & Energy
When we inhale, oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream and is transported to every cell of the body. When we exhale, CO2 (the body’s waste) is removed from the body. As Patton Sarley writes in his article for Kripalu: “Cellular respiration, the source of all our physical energy and expression in the world, is dependent on a constant flow of oxygen being delivered to each cell and carbon dioxide being taken away.” Learn more here…
Breath for PH Balance and Anti-Inflammation
Discussions about pH and inflammation have been all the rage in health and wellness lately. Deep breathing reduces inflammation and has alkalizing effects on the body, balancing the pH. Conversely, the effects of shallow breathing are a buildup of CO2, creating acidic conditions. Deep breathing may be the most healing action you can take! More on this here…
Breath for Stress & Chronic Conditions
It has been shown that most of us move through life in a near-constant state of “fight/flight” activation with the stress hormone cortisol pumping through our bodies. Simply put, we’re stressed out, most of the time, whether we need to be or not. And this chronic stress is a root cause of countless chronic conditions. Short, shallow breath is appropriate for fight/flight, as the body prepares to survive a conflict. But it’s not appropriate for every day life. By deepening the breath, and actually elongating the exhale, we are shifting out of our sympathetic nervous systems and activating our parasympathetic nervous systems. This simple act recalibrates our stress response and addresses or contributes to the prevention of many serious chronic conditions. NPR explored this further on Morning Edition, listen here…
Our conclusion? An abundance of oxygen may be the easiest and biggest boost to your health and wellness regime. Best of all, it is so simple and we already have all the tools! We can restore and enhance our natural breathing patterns by bringing attention to the breath throughout the day and including pranayama in our yoga practice. Easy Breezy!
Do you hear the word “detox” and imagine yourself starving for a day while you dream about chocolate cake? Or do you picture yourself quickly dropping annoying pounds that your body has been holding onto for years? The concept of detoxification, which used to be reserved for overcoming drug and alcohol addiction, has been hijacked by the diet industry. It’s time to reclaim this incredible practice and invite some wellness back into our lives. In today’s world, the idea of “detoxing” can quickly be misconstrued as another extreme fad diet. However, the practice of inviting in more plant-based foods, drinking plenty of water, getting adequate rest, removing stimulants, breathing deeply (practicing pranayama), and setting aside time for adequate relaxation supports the body in doing its incredibly intricate job of maintaining balance.
Our bodies have incredibly sophisticated, built-in detoxification systems (liver, kidneys, colon, lungs, lymph and skin) that provide the ongoing daily cleansing that keeps us healthy and energized. And yet, we live in a world where we eat food that looks nothing like the plant from which it originated. We drink sugar, caffeine and alcohol to boost our energy or alter our state of mind. We breathe smoggy air and the skin (the largest organ of our body) is exposed to many different chemicals and hormones on a daily basis (some even found in our water supply). Not to mention our workday has become longer and longer, often requiring us to sit in front of a computer for long hours.
Planning a detox can be an act of self-love, particularly if you reclaim the practice and take a multidimensional approach.
Nutrition matters. Plant-based foods are where it’s at… For inspiration, check out these fun & engaging food blogs with recipes that nourish your body with an abundance of macronutrients (vitamins, minerals, water, protein, carbs, fat) that will energize you from the inside-out. Add simple practices like sipping lemon juice with water and apple cider vinegar drinks, which have an alkalizing effect on the body reducing inflammation and restore natural balance. Rather than deprive yourself of foods you love, create a sense of abundance around food by preparing plenty of fresh options and eating when you are hungry… and stopping when you have had enough.
Body matters. Plan rejuvenating and relaxing activities: yin and restorative yoga at the studio, walking in nature, bathing with epsom salts and essential oils, dry brushing, and getting to bed early will all support the detox process. A long exhale is perhaps the most effective detox there is. Add some pranayama into your yoga routine; experience spinal twists to wring out the organs and try some restorative postures to let go on the cellular, muscular and fascial levels.
Mind matters. Digital detox anyone? Fasting from technology may be almost unimaginable in this day and age, but it is well worth the experiment. Let’s be real… we are all so hooked to our devices… Sometimes we have no idea what to do with the time and space between conversation and activities. Take a break from technology and say YES to your mental health. What to do instead? Take time to meditate or practice simple mindfulness practices (like this mindful eating activity with chocolate!). This will help to create a sense of inner calm, awareness, and non-judgment that you can carry into the rest of your life.
Heart matters. Treat yourself with loving kindness and allow for healthy connections with people in your life by using affirmations. This will rejuvenate and restore your entire being, encouraging a sense of abundance and peace in your detox process. The mantra for the heart chakra is “love and be loved,” or “I have the right to love and be loved.” Schedule time out to reflect on matters of love and the heart, what works and what doesn’t work for us, and practice letting go of what no longer serves us.. if only for this moment.
Spirit matters. Take time to remove the layers of clutter that dim your inner light or bury your true self by communing with nature, experiencing sacred spaces, listening to beautiful music, letting go of effort and hard work, entering flow, and taking time to become interested in your inner world. This will, without a doubt, support the process of aligning all parts of your being with the calling of your soul.
Any or all of these practices will support a renewal in all parts of your life… so this weekend take some time to truly detoxify in the way that is right for you.
Known for his ability to merge the practical and the mystical, B.K.S. Iyengar was one of the most influential yogis of all time. He has been credited with bringing yoga to the West, and, by introducing props such as bolsters, blocks, blankets, hammocks, and straps, Iynegar was able to make difficult yoga postures available to everyone!
The breath is the foundation of the yoga practice. As we coordinate breath with movement during the asana practice (yoga postures), we move into meditation and can even connect more deeply to ourselves and to the universal as a whole.
Iyenger has said, “During inhalation, the breath should move exactly like clouds spreading in the sky.” So, as we inhale, we observe the breath filling our lungs, expanding through our bodies with ease. He adds, “When the breath is nicely exhaled towards the heart, the heart is purified from the desires and emotions that disturb it.” With each exhale, we cleanse and purify the body.
It’s really that simple.
But! After viewing the following video, you might never think of the breath the same again. Iyengar’s demonstration will blow you away (yes, pun intended!) with the length and vibration of his inhale and exhale. It is well worth the 2 minutes 40 seconds!
Thanks to Nora for sharing this inspiring video with us!
Have you experienced fatigue, chronic pain, stress, anxiety, or insomnia? Do you fall ill every other week or deal with chronic indigestion? Or do simply want to improve upon the amazing life you already have by boosting your brain, enhancing your athletic performance, deepening your yoga and meditation practice, and finding more ways to bring rest and relaxation into your life?
The new book Breathe, by Dr. Belisa Vranich, may address all these questions and more. Dr. Vranich explains the science of breathing, specifically related to oxygen in the body on the cellular level, in a clear and accessible voice — without too much medical jargon that can convolute the message. She addresses symptoms many of us struggle with (fatigue, anxiety, sleep issues, immune health) via a simple program of 10 minutes a day for 14 days. Her program calls forth the part of you that already knows how to breathe deeply, rather than teaching too many new tricks, so we already have everything we need to begin.
Breathe has definitely made the Five Pillars’ summer reading list!
Dr. Vranich’s approach really resonated with us here at the studio and our philosophy of Right Breathing: Breathe is about tapping into the innate wisdom that we already have by cultivating awareness of the breath. Plus, in just two weeks we can change our patterns of breathing, become more conscious, and change the biology of our physical body. We’re in! Are you?