Learning to Breathe: Importance of Pranayama

Today, I had a brief conversation with a friend who told me that he recently had an anxiety attack. He said it was triggered by a combination of a crowded room he was in, and not being able to slow down his mind (being that he’s a singer/dancer, his mind is creating a thousand ideas a minute on top of all the day-to-day thoughts he sorts through within that same 60 seconds… If you’re an artist, you understand). When I mentioned to him that I can teach him some breathing techniques that have helped my clients who struggle with anxiety, he jokingly said, “People pay to learn how to breathe? I can do that all by myself!” (He was joking, as he was very appreciative of my offer)

Not that I was offended by his joke in any way, but his statement got me thinking about how so many people believe that they’re breathing simply because they haven’t passed out from turning blue… but I stand by my belief that at least once a day, you must make your breathing intentional.

You may have heard the word, Pranayama in your last Yoga class. In Sanskrit, Prana is “fundamental life force” (aka breath), and Ayama is “control”… so Pranayama translates to “breath control”, more specifically, controlling the breath to intentionally create a specific energetic effect.

Throughout the day, most people take unintentional, shallow breaths through the chest. This shallow chest-breathing manually activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which is the “fight or flight” response to stress.  When this this activated, the shoulders start coming up towards the ears, digestion slows down, and the immune system weakens.  Our bodies are wired with the ability to activate the SNS to protect ourselves from dangerous situations and environments. But if SNS is active for too long, it becomes a chronic condition. Studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to many ailments such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and impaired memory.

All this sounds terrible, doesn’t it?  There’s great news though! Just as I mentioned to my friend earlier, you can manually activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the “rest and digest” response toward optimal health.  Activating the PNS allows your entire body (including your vital organs) to relax, heal and restore.


To activate the PNS, try this simple Pranayama:

Sit comfortably, and begin to breathe through the nose, inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 4 counts.
After about 5 breaths, start increasing your exhalation by 1 count until you reach a 1:2 ratio (inhaling for 4 counts, exhaling for 8 counts):

Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 4 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 5 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 6 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 7 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 8 counts.

Close your eyes and continue the 1:2 breathing for several minutes until you begin to feel calm and relaxed.


The 1:2 breathing above is also excellent to practice right before going to bed… In fact, this is the pranayama that I practice every night.

There are many different types of pranayama for different effects, such as to energize, to help focus, to clear the head, to increase digestion and to increase focus.

And to answer my friend’s question: Yes, people do pay to learn how to breathe.
wink emoji.png

Aerial Yoga: A 3-Dimensional Practice

I love Aerial Yoga.  I love the fluidity, grace, strength, and fun that Aerial Yoga brings. It’s such a cool way to practice Yoga, and when done properly, it can be a great practice to uplift, calm, or center (just like a great traditional Yoga practice). It can be as restoring or as physically-challenging as you want it to be (or both).

You can use the hammock as a propAerial Dancer to assist in certain poses (like in Natarajasana, or “King Dancer Pose”on the right) which allows certain poses to become more accessible for those working on increasing their stability and/or flexibility. While in a pose like Natarajasana with a hammock, you can pull the fabric forward and up simultaneously to increase the back bend.

You might be saying to yourself, “I can use a yoga strap to achieve the same pose.” It is true that you can use a yoga strap to achieve an Assisted Natarajasana, but the aerial hammock allows for more versatility in assisting with other poses like Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana (“Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose”like this one on the left).  This assisted pose allows the body to build up the stability and flexibility gradually while learning proper alignment and gaining confidence that you can achieve the unassisted/unmodified version of the pose(s) in the future.

Another aspect of Aerial Yoga that I love is the inversions. When I teach traditional (Hatha and Hatha Flow) Yoga classes, the only “inversion” that I teach is Viparita Karani (also known as “Jack Knife” or “Legs up the Wall”) because it does not compress the cervical spine. Ever since I was involved in a car accident two years ago (I was rear-ended by a vehicle going about 40 mph), I no longer do my favorite inversion, Sirsasana (“Headstand”) because my I’ve lost a lot of the curvature in my neck (see my blog titled “Inversion Addiction“). Aerial Yoga gives me an alternative and therapeutic way to invert without compressing any part of the spine.

Here’s me doing one of my favorite inversions, Inverted Pigeon:
Inverted Pigeon

This pose, along with other aerial inversions, allows the spine to decompress, creating more space between the discs which becomes more and more important as we get older.  (On a side note, did you know that after about 30 years of age, your spinal discs begin to dry out because the water content in them begins to decrease?  Creating space in the discs allows them to “suck up” moisture like a sponge.)

To be completely honest, I haven’t done an aerial yoga practice in 12 days, and my spine definitely feels the difference! I’ll be planning some time with my hammock this week!

Yoga Teacher Training – Weekend #2

I felt good going into the second weekend of my In-Depth Yoga Studies & Teacher Training program with Shanon Buffington because I felt like I knew what to expect and because I had met a lot of the students during the first weekend and through Facebook (good ol’ Facebook!).

Friday night was a review of our homework and lecture on forward bends and related anatomy.  I was feeling confident about my homework because I was sure that I got all of the answers correct…  Well, I was wrong.  I had most of the answers right, but on a few, I was way off.  I found myself feeling “below average” for my inability to get all of the answers correct.  I was able to brush off that feeling, so I just dismissed it as a non-issue.

Saturday was a very hands-on lecture:  As we learned the anatomical aspect of each forward bend asanas, we got up and tried these poses.  One of the first asanas that Shanon used “models” for, was Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog).  She asked one of the students to demonstrate it, and the rest of the class observed her proper alignment (basically, the proper way to do the asana).  Shanon then asked me to demonstrate my Adho Mukha Svanasana.  I was more than happy to demonstrate it, since I have been practicing yoga for 16 years.  To my surprise (and a blow to my ego) however, she pointed out to the class how my “shoulders were crunching into my neck”.  She then provided me with verbal instructions on how to make adjustments to make the pose correct.  I was shocked at how much more challenging this “simple” pose was once I was doing it properly!  Although I was glad to know the proper way of doing this pose, I started questioning my yoga practice and abilities.  Again, I decided to push this out of my mind.

Saturday ended with an asana practice focusing on forward bends.  Being that Shanon and informed us of the effects of forward bends (it brings the energy down, which means if you’re super hyper/energetic/busy mind/etc, this will be a good practice for you; however, if you have a tendency to be down or struggle with depression, this is NOT a favorable practice), I made sure I listened to her cues for breathing techniques that we should do if we don’t want our energy coming down even more (I was feeling a bit emotional and down that day).  I didn’t feel any dramatic effects of the practice that evening.

We finished the weekend on Sunday with another practice after the lecture/demonstration session.  As I packed up to leave, I slipped out of the studio quickly and quietly because I was feeling a bit introverted.

The next few days after that, I continued to observe my mood, energy and behavior…

After a Vinyasa class on Tuesday evening (where we did some forward bending asanas and ended with an inversion), I awoke on Wednesday feeling DEPRESSED!  I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I had very little energy to stay awake for more than an hour at a time.  Everything overwhelmed me and I felt like I couldn’t face the world!

Wow…  Never underestimate the powerful effect of yoga!

(P.S. – After a couple of days, my energy and mood was back to normal.)