A single inhalation is called puraka, which means “the intake of cosmic energy by the individual for his growth and progress”. Exhalation is said to be rechaka, “the process by which the energy of the body is gradually unites with the energy of the mind”.
Breathing occurs naturally, involuntarily and unconsciously. This “natural breathing” varies greatly depending on the person’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual state. It is characterized by depression, anxiety, tight or weak respiratory muscles, disorientation, lethargy, or compromised flight energy.
Under these conditions, breathing is usually shallow, inefficient, and relies more on the secondary respiratory muscles rather than the diaphragm.
Rather than assuming that you share a common foundational quality of breath, it is better to practice pranayama starting with natural conditions and building from that initial foundation. It starts with developing basic breath awareness.
“Learning to breathe well isn’t an additive process in which you learn specific techniques to improve the breathing you already have,” says Donna Farhi. “It’s a process of reconstruction where you learn to identify the things you’re already doing that restrict the natural emergence of the breath.”1
This observational process anticipates and develops deep somatic awareness along with the possibilities of pranayama, helping to consciously connect the breath, body, and mind.
With this baseline of breath awareness, you explore the development and refinement of your breathing more subtly, discovering how to more easily develop sthira sukham asanam while breathing in a variety of different ways.
It begins with feeling the contraction and release of your respiratory muscles and related movements in the body with two types of puraka (inhalation) and rechaka (exhalation).
Puraka — The Inhalation
Depending on other actions—some poses, pranayama, or sitting in meditation—breathing can be achieved in ways that support those actions.
The following exercises are designed to help you develop and refine your awareness and the practice of Puraka.
In guiding these exercises, you’ll encourage to be receptive rather than holding your breath. With practice, breathing is achieved delicately yet thorough, steady yet smoothly, causing as little disturbance to the body-mind as possible.
1. Diaphragmatic Inhalation
- Lying on the back, bend the hips and knees as if preparing for Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), placing one palm on the stomach, the other on the heart center. Feel how the full breath contracts the abdominal muscles.
- With the following inhalation, feel how your abdomen expands outwards. Continue to focus on this movement, which is caused by the contraction and descent of your diaphragm.
- Play with different exhalation limits, feeling how it affects the subsequent movement of the abdomen. Try to keep your spine and ribs relaxed and move only with the movement of the breath caused by the diaphragm.
- Play with starting, stopping, and changing the rate and volume of each breath, focusing this effort in your diaphragm while feeling the effect elsewhere in your body. Continue this search under the belly with the palms facing down.
- Explore directing different versions of diaphragmatic inhalation to different areas (one side and the other, front and back, lower and higher) in different body positions:
- lying on back with arms extended, lying on stomach, at sides rotated.
- Finally, explore diaphragmatic inhalation while keeping the stomach from expanding, using the hands on the ribs to feel the gradual expansion and lifting of the ribs. Try to allow this movement to originate deep in the chest rather than more superficially at the level of the ribs. Explore it in different positions.
2. Costal Inhalation
- Sit comfortably tall in Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose), placing palms on side ribs, to establish pelvic neutrality and neutral spinal extension, if necessary.
- Exhale completely, feeling that the side and back ribs are pulled together and down.
- With the inhalation, push the ribs into the hands while allowing the ribs to slide away from each other as the serratus anterior muscles contract, lifting and pulling the ribs back and out. Try to move only in the ribs, keeping the shoulders and abdomen relaxed while feeling the full expansion of the rib cage and lungs.
- Next, activate breathing with the pectoralis major muscle at the top of the chest: While pulling the shoulder blades gently down against the back ribs, place the fingers of one hand on the front of the shoulders and the other fingers on the front ribs. xiphoid process (just below the breast line).
- As you inhale and exhale, try to feel the contraction of the pectoralis major as you lift the sternum, separating the lower and middle ribs.
- Place the fingers just below the clavicle and try to feel the ribs, drawing awareness to the higher areas of the chest and lungs.
- Keeping the shoulder blades relaxed against the back ribs, try to focus the breath as if breathing into the clavicle, activating the pectoralis minor muscle to fully open the heart center.
- Try to breathe alternately using the pectoralis minor and major muscles, feeling how the difference in their resulting movements opens up different areas of the rib cage.
- Now locate the highest breath using the sternocleidomastoids (SCMs) and the scalene.
- With your fingers slightly above the hollow space between your collarbones, tilt your head back slightly to wake up the SCM. Create quick “sniffing” inhalations to feel the SCM shrink. Explore doing this after taking a full breath and holding, lifting the sternum, and seeing how it allows you to breathe more.
- Place the fingers lightly on the sides of your neck and feel for the texture of the scalenes muscle, which descends from the transverse process of the upper cervical vertebrae down and outward to the first two ribs. These muscles aid in higher respiratory speed.
Rechaka — The Exhalation
1. Abdominal Exhalation
- Sitting in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose), exhale slowly and completely while maintaining your neutral position of the lower ribs, feeling the natural contraction of your upper abdomen just below the lower ribs. Pay attention to the tendency of your spine to twist.
- Keeping palms on your stomach, repeat this pose until your spine is stretched.
- Now add the moolabandha, contract lightly and lift your transverse perineal and deep pelvic muscles.
- Explore linking the energy and muscle lift of the root bandha with the gradual contraction of your abdomen, to rapidly awaken your transversus abdominis muscles.
- Next, try to progressively engage your abdominal muscles from below the navel to the lower ribs as the breath is exhaled.
2. Costal Exhalation
- Placing one palm on the heart and one on the belly, slowly exhale while pulling the sternum back toward the spine and minimizing the abdominal muscles’ contraction.
- This practice brings awareness to your transversus thoracis muscle, which closes your rib cage in the front. Try to feel the slight flexion of your upper spine as the breath flows out.
- With the palms on the side ribs, repeat this exercise, feeling how the side ribs lower as your obliques contract and your spine slightly flexes.
- Place your fingertips on the xiphoid process and repeat this pose, feeling the front ribs draw lower and in.
Use these basic inhalations and exhalations practices in your yoga practices to help develop the balance and integrity of your breathing. Most people initially find the inhalations and exhalations differing in pace, texture, sound, intensity, and duration.