Many people are attracted to yoga by its physicality rather than its spirituality. Teaching some simple deep breathing techniques is a great way to introduce pranayama to novice yogis.
So What is Pranayama Anyway?
In its simplest form, pranayama is just deep breathing. Yes, we can make it technical by using only one nostril, closing our throats or adding breath retention but it is still basically just air entering and leaving the body to bring in oxygen and flush out carbon dioxide. It’s good to introduce pranayama for beginners to bring awareness to this process.
The benefits of pranayama are well documented and confirmed by good, hard science. They include reduced blood pressure, reduced heart rate, increased feelings of well being, reduced feelings of anxiety, improved mood, improved sleep and relief from the adverse effects of stress. All things that most people will benefit from.
As our practice deepens we can develop a complex pranayama practice but working on alternate nostril breathing or kapalabati with beginners could easily frighten them away — not quite what you are trying to achieve as a yoga teacher. So how can we make pranayama less scary and really acceptable to new yogis?
Basics of Breathing
It is our diaphragm that is the power house of relaxed breathing. When we breathe in, its contraction creates the negative pressure inside the chest cavity that draws air in through the nose and mouth to fill the lungs. As it contracts, the diaphragm flattens and squashes the abdominal contents. This is why you can feel the upper belly swell on deep diaphragmatic inhalation. We may choose to cue ‘draw the air down into the belly‘ to help students get the feel of filling the base of the lungs but the air stays firms in the chest cavity and does not pass into the belly.
If the inhalation is very deep, the diaphragm will get to a point where it can’t squash the abdominal contents any further and it becomes fixed. At this point, further contraction of the diaphragm will make the lower ribs lift up and out making the chest wider, this is called the bucket handle movement of the ribs. When the lower ribs run out of movement sideways, the upper ribs start to move forwards and up. Lifting the sternum and making the chest deeper front to back, the pump handle movement of the ribs.
See Also: Pranayama: The Silken Thread
There is no right or wrong place to put breath work in your classes. It sits well at the beginning to help centring and focus at the start of a class or as preparation for savasana towards the end. I love to use it after savasana too — here it beautifully eases students gently from their relaxed state and allows them to really appreciate the feelings of calmness before rushing back to their busy lives.
Here’s a few things you can try:
- Simple diaphragmatic or belly breathing — With the students lying on their back with legs bent or straight and one hand on the upper belly. Encourage them to feel the belly swell as they breathe in and soften as they breathe out. A few slow rounds of this is a great place to start.
- Three-point breathing — This uses the diaphragm, bucket handle and pump handle movements of the ribs in turn. Start with a belly breath as above but keep on breathing in so that the lower ribs move out first then the upper ones lift the sternum. I find beginners struggle to this in sitting and practicing it in lying is a much more relaxing experience for them.
- Diaphragmatic breathing on your belly — I use this after a few rounds of belly breathing lying on the back. Encourage students to slowly roll over, place both hands under their forehead to take some weight off the chest and resume belly breathing. Cueing students to push the air to the back of the chest helps to deepen the breath here.
- Length of breath — Beginners may find it difficult to manipulate the breath and trying to achieve a 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale may prove stressful and uncomfortable rather than relaxing. Be sensitive to this and maybe leave this technicality until they are used to just breathing as slowly as they can.
- How much is too much — I really think that less is more here. I use 8-12 breaths in each type of breathing. I will also often cue when it is time to change position too as beginners often lack the confidence to be the first to move and just keep on going till someone else moves.
- Home practice — When you are teaching students to develop a home practice these techniques have to be high on the list of things to encourage students to try. They are so accessible and students feel the benefits immediately so they are easy to commit to and keep practicing.
Pranayama for Beginners
These simple techniques are incredibly effective at stilling the mind and offer so many health benefits for beginners. I have found that most new yogis really love this part of their class and it can be what really hooks them into continuing to practice. It would be such a shame for students to miss out on these things early in their yoga journey. How about making pranayama part of your beginners classes if you don’t already? Your students will love you for it!