fitness · yoga

Catching my breath: Catherine does Pranayama yoga

So I’ve been sick with this monster truck cold virus for a month now. After several doctor’s visits, a chest X-ray, two types of antibiotics (doc thinking it could be bacterial), and endless cough drops, I’m finally on the upswing. I got a steroid inhaler, which has helped with my biggest problem: breathing. Yeah, that can be an annoying problem– not being able to breath without constriction and coughing. That was the situation (which Samantha has been going through, too). But, using the inhaler (which, due to US pharmacy staffing and drug supply problems, I only got on Thursday– Argh!) is making breathing and moving around while breathing much easier. Yay!

But then I found something that was perfect for what ailed me: a Pranayama yoga class at my favorite local yoga studio, Artemis, and taught by my favorite local yoga teacher, Liz P. Pranayama yoga involves a number of different breathing techniques, but it much more than that. Here’s what Yoga Journal says about it:

In Sanskrit as well as yoga tradition, prana means “life force,” and describes the energy that sustains the life of the body… The word pranayama is a combination of prana and ayama, which translates as “to extend, expand or draw out.” Some also say that the word is the combination of prana and yama, or “control.” With either translation, you arrive at the same concept: pranayama is a practice that involves the management or control of the breath. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, yogis believe that this practice not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself.

In our Friday evening restorative yoga class, Liz led us through several breathing practices, all done in quiet and restful but intentional poses, mostly reclined on the mat. One type of breathing we did was called ujjayi breath, or ocean breath. Again, here’s Yoga journal with some info:

An easy way to get the feel of Ujjayi is to imagine fogging up a mirror. Exhale with an open mouth, feeling the breath moving across your throat and hearing that “ocean” sound. Once you are accustomed to the feeling in your throat, practice inhaling and exhaling with a closed mouth.

We did several restorative poses using ujjayi breath. One series we did involved lying against a bolster on our side, top arm over our head to rest on a block, feeling the breath on the upper side of our bodies. Then we switched to face down, the other side, and finally face up, lying on a long bolster with the head at the edge. I got the feeling of opening up my chest in ways I hadn’t experienced in over a month. That expansiveness of breath was wonderful.

We also did what’s called alternate-nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana Pranayama. This involves using your ring finger and thumb to open and close one nostril so to breathe in and out through one nostril, then the other. This is not an exercise that appeals to everyone, but I love it. Within the specific structure of the exercise, I feel the flow of breath in and out, from left to right, and back again. Here’s some info about how to do it, if you’re interested.

And then there’s the bumblebee breath, or Brahmari Pranayama. It’s the same sort of breath you use to chant Om, but you do it with your mouth closed and your fingers in your ears. No, I’m not kidding. You close your ears a bit to enhance the sound, which is like a low rumbly hum. It’s great to be in a class full of people, all humming internally.

At the beginning and end of class, we chanted Om three times. This is one of my favorite things in yoga class. It’s like singing and breathing and praying and releasing, all at the same time, with others all around you. Just the physical feeling is enough to try it, if you’re ever in a yoga class that does this.

After a month of tightness and sickness and overall yuckiness, Pranayama was a real breath of fresh air. I’m feeling much better. Check out a class yourself if you get the opportunity.

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