What the squat?!

What the pose Malasana can tell you about your body

If that feeling of dread washes over you when the yoga teacher says "just bend your knees and come into a deep yogi squat" you find yourself glancing sideways, comparing how 'easy' it looks for some people yet it feels awful in your own body, then this post is for you!  Often our challenges in life present the greatest opportunities for learning, and Malasana or Garland pose can offer us much valuable insight into ourselves. Some yoga asana are more gymnastical and some are highly functional, the deep squat is highly functional, so we want to do it, yet it's a complex pose that involves many joints and muscles.  Depending on your body proportions,  joint structures, areas of tension, areas of mobility, strengths and weakness the answers will be different. The great news is, that Malasana is a great place to help identify some underlying issues in the body and become curious about these complex workings.

You're one of a kind baby, there's no one quite like you!

“Differences aren't deficits,” said population geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky.

The truth is everyone’s squat will look a little different due to anatomical variations of the hip joint. Some of these variations are skeletal, and no amount of yoga practice or hip opening can change the shape of this bony architecture, at least not significantly, so Malasana can also become a seat for radical self acceptance!  With consistent and safe practice, your squat may change shape as your soft tissues change, so let us not be limited by our anatomy and instead let's get in and explore things a little more.  Squatting is a functional movement so if we don't use it, we will likely loos it!  Think how many times a day you squat, getting up out of a chair or off the floor, stepping out of the car, or going to the bathroom!  Yet in the western culture a deep squat isn't part of our daily life unless we make it one, I know as I age I want to be able to get down on the floor and play with my grandchildren!  Learning about your body and how to come into deep squat honouring your own architecture, will undoubtably help your movement patterns and posture. 

IMG_0880.JPG

Whats involved?

So I said it was complex so bear with me here if anatomy isn't your jam!  The ability to perform the deep squat requires appropriate closed-kinetic chain (weight-bearing) dorsiflexion of the ankles; knee and hip flexion; combined movement of the lumbar spine (lower back) and the pelvis; axial extension (lengthening) of the spine; and slight shoulder flexion.  Malasana challenges the mechanics of the whole body to work cohesively together, no wonder it can go south (literally... who feels like they are going to fall backwards?)  it requires mobility and stability in the ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, and spine.  

Natural tendencies

Just the way you are, is perfect, however understanding how your body proportions affect a pose is a golden key for unlocking compassion and understanding in our practice. Those with long torsos and/or short legs will likely find malasana to be a little more accessible, while those with shorter torsos and/or longer legs may have to work a little smarter and longer to find a 'comfortable seat' in Malasana.   Taking the time to examine Malasana closer, we can begin to assess bilateral symmetry in the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and spine.  Also observing our own ROM and where we may benefit from the use of props and how to use them. 

Try the pose

Use a mirror or film yourself on your phone so that you can look, assess and start to awaken your inner teacher.  Begin with your feet a little wider than hip distance and perhaps start with the feet slightly turned out. Keeping grounded through the big toes, start to bend the knees and begin to lower down, as you lower down drive your knees out wide, while keeping the big toes pressing down.  Your heels might lift a bit (we will look at that a little later) but try to keep them down as best you can.  You can bring the elbows inside the knees or inner thighs, or reach out and take hold of your mat in front. You might feel like you're going to topple over backwards, or you might end up on your bum, but we'll look at what that can mean later too!

Observe

How do you feel?  Are your heels lifting?  Look at your arches, are they collapsing? Are your ankles rolling in, or knees knocking in? Is one side more collapsed or heavy that the other?  Are your toes excessively turned out?  Are your knees tracking over your feet? How do you feel in your hips?  Then look form the side, is your spine straight, rounded or arched?  Is your tail tucked under? Where is the weight landing?

Start from the ground 

Feet and ankles

In asana we always begin from the base, take a look at your feet and ankles.  Do your heels want to lift up?  The simple answer here is usually restriction in the soft tissues of the calf, the chillies tendon and more specifically the soleus muscle (deeper lower calf muscle) because the knee is flexed (bent) in this position.  These tissues can be released with trigger point release balls, a massage therapist and also strengthened with isolated exercises.  Sometimes in an effort to get the heels down the medial (inner) arch collapses and/or the feet turn out excessively.  This can be an indicators of tightness in the upper hamstrings and piriformis muscles (deep external rotator of the hip)  and/or weakness in the gluteus medius muscle.  

Malasana also requires the ankle to dorsiflex, the functional ROM (range of motion) here is 20 degrees and for this action to occur the talus bone (caged bone in the ankle with no muscular attachments) needs to glide posteriorly (backwards) as the foot moves towards the shin.  This is a less common culprit but if there has been injury or compression in this area, you may benefit from talus mobilisation exercises to help increase ROM in the ankle.

Knees and hips

So how about the knees, are they knocking inwards?  This can indicate weak gluteus muscles, tight adductors (inner thighs) and/or tight iliotibial band (the band of fascia along the outside of the leg). If your low back arched excessively (particularly as you lowered down), you may have tight hip flexors that are compensating for a weak core. If your spine rounded forward, you may have weak erector spinae muscles, a tight thoracic (middle) spine, and/or tight hamstrings.  So what is your body trying to tell you here?  More posterior chain (back body) strengthening, just think how much of your day is seated!

Asymmetry 

Leaning toward one side, one knee dropping in or one hip higher than the other, can indicate stability issues, asymmetrical ROM in ankles, knees or hips or a protective mechanism that the body has created to avoid pain. This is common in people who've have injuries or impingement in the lower body.  This can be seen more clearly in video or photos as it is likely that if the body has been in this pattern for a while, you can't feel it.

So what do we do?

The easiest way to make this pose more accessible is to place support underneath the heels (such as a rolled up towel, your mat, a yoga wedge or blanket). If your heels are really close to the ground, try widening your feet a bit more and/or turning your toes out a little more, and see if that helps bring your heels down, but don't collapse the arches!!!. Your own unique structure and where your hip socket is positioned will affect your positioning, try taking the feet wider, how does that feel?  How does it feel with the feet more parallel?  If ROM in the knees or ankles are an issue try sitting on a block or move to a wall for light support, if you take this option keep as much weight as possible in the feet so that it stays active and you receive the benefits from the pose rather than just sitting in it!  Aim to keep your knees in line with the feet and keep pressing your big toes firmly into the ground.  As your body changes so too may your Malasana, some days my feet feel good parallel other days I need more turn out. 

IMG_0915.JPG
IMG_0914.JPG

Other things to try

So you've got the heels down now on the floor or support, make sure to keep your big toes pressing down while you drive the knees outwards and weight towards the outer edge of the foot.  This keeps the gluteal muscles turned on and helps

  • Your ankles and feet stay in a better position, providing a solid foundation.
  • Your knees pointing in the same direction as the feet, not twisting inwards.
  • Your hips are externally rotating and creating a little torque in the hip sockets.

The strong foundation of the feet creates pada bandha (root lift from the soles of the feet) helping further up the chain to lift the pelvic floor and lower abdominals (mula bandha and uddiyana bandha). Use the elbows to press the knees out, while simultaneously hugging the knees in to the elbow, to lift the spine upwards  and draw the chest forward.  This action engages the upper back muscles and 'untucks' the tailbone, feel how this lifts the rib cage and diaphragm, allowing a more spacious sensation into the torso.  Soften the chin and lengthen the back of the neck.

If you hold this pose for a while, you may experience sensation in the frontal shin muscles (tibialis anterior) these muscles work against the release of the calves to help stop you from falling backwards.  Don't despair, come out when you need to and build up time in the pose slowly, as these muscles strengthen and the calves release, it will become more of a comfortable seat.

If you are still toppling backwards you can hold onto your mat, move to a wall or practice at home holding on to a strong table leg to improve the ROM in the required joints.  Don't give up, as we age this is a functional movement that we want to maintain.  As it gets easier with practice you may even find yourself stopping, dropping and squatting throughout the day! 

Yoga for building self esteem and confidence

We have all heard about the health benefits of yoga, it can improve strength,flexibility and muscle tone, it can help you become more aware of your posture and calmer in the mind. What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that yoga can also play a great role in increasing your self esteem and confidence. I believe true confidence comes from an authentic connection to your true self, and yoga is a systemised science that can provide the pathway towards this self realisation. 

yogaconfidence1.jpg

Without self confidence, we let fear take control and we can end up in some pretty awful situations.  My self esteem was at an all time low in 2004, and this led me to be in, and stay in, an abusive relationship for two years. I became physically ill and along with that, I felt the weakest I have ever felt in my life. Getting out of the house and going to yoga was the only time I had a glimpse of my true self, and that self had become overshadowed by fear and insecurity. Practising yoga helped remind me that I was strong, it helped me to become clearer in my mind and re-build my broken spirit. I’d love to share with you some key parts of the practice to help with confidence and self esteem, and to remember that you are strong, you are worthy and you are more than enough. 

How does yoga really help?

The World Health Organisation defines health as a dynamic state of complete physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing and not merely as the absence of disease or infirmity. Yoga views the mind, body and spirit as one, aiming to balance the entire system. The effects that practising yoga has on the personality (gunas) has been measured and proven to help self esteem and confidence. 

According to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Yoga, “Yoga helps in the improvement in gunas (personality) and self esteem. These findings reveal that yoga has greater influence on holistic personality growth (gunas) when compared to routine physical exercise. Hence, it can be considered independently to promote quality of life and health, prevent chronic diseases, and to promote socio-economic development.”

Love your body

Yoga poses and exercises can help give your muscles a more toned appearance that help you to feel and look better. Thanks to the breathing practices of yoga, more oxygen can enter your muscles, and it’s said that this can provide your whole system more vital energy (prana). Yoga has helped me to view my body less from the outside and look more in wonder at the brilliant architecture and workings of the body as a whole. Learning to appreciate the amazing things our body can do, rather than focusing on what we can’t do or don’t like is hugely empowering and helps to re-focus the mind.

You can’t do everything!

Self-confidence helps us get rid of fear of the things that we cannot do. However, the truth of the matter is that we cannot do everything, but this doesn't necessarily mean that we should feel bad about having limitations. Anyone who has got on the mat realises that yoga is extremely humbling and can help you understand more about your mind as well as your body. With yoga, you can become more aware of your limitations, as well as your potential. Becoming aware of our potential also means that we can become more aware of the limiting thoughts and actions that get in our way.  Meditation can help you grasp the concept that limitations are not downfalls, but simply shortcomings that have to be accepted. When we stop trying to do everything, we give ourselves space to focus on what is really important.

Time to digest

Imagine if you never gave yourself the time to digest your food, with no time to eliminate what you didn’t need.  You’d be constipated, right? We all know the importance of the physical digestive process, yet we don’t seem to place the same importance on mental digestion. We all need time to digest our thoughts, feelings and emotions or the mind gets overwhelmed and ‘constipated’!  A build-up of negative thoughts can ultimately lead to depression, but meditation and breathing practices can help you digest these thoughts and declutter the mind. Once you learn how to deal with stress, your self confidence will increase as you feel more able to deal with life’s problems.

Self esteem and confidence in practice

Yoga practice - Stand in your strength

Rethinking stress for a full, enriched life

Ever found your heart beating faster as you sit in a traffic jam on the way to work? Do you snap at the kids as you try to hurry them out the door to school?

If you’re experiencing signs of stress before the day has even properly started, yogi and wellness practitioner Nikki Ralston says it could be time to rethink your response.

Stress is a part of life we can’t avoid, says Nikki, so changing your view of it and altering your day to day life are a big part of managing it.

In a recent talk at our Auckland shop, she shared some great tips for rethinking your response to stress.

NikkiRalston-69.jpg

Ritual

Nikki’s a big fan of ‘micro rituals’ that help us move from one part of our day to the next without carrying stress between them. One of the techniques for achieving this is a relaxation exercise: sit tall and close your eyes, be aware of physical stress in your body, feel your breath, take conscious breaths inhaling through the nose and out through the mouth, letting go of stress as you exhale.

Connection

Nikki loves bringing down the barrier to connection through her massage work, where she finds touch makes people more willing to share their vulnerability. She says working with a diverse range of clients has shown that people share the same insecurities and fears. And she says scientists have shown that reaching out to other people during a stressful life event is an effective way to improve your mood, with researchers suggesting the hormone oxytocin plays a big part in this.

“Oxytocin is also produced under the stress response. If we reach out to another person we start to produce more of it and lower the stress response in our own body and in the person we’ve reached out to.”

Stop the glorification of busy

Nikki says there’s a tipping point when stress turns to distress in the body and mind. But those who have developed effective strategies to deal with day to day stressors are less likely to develop negative physical and psychological symptoms, she says.

To come back from the “slippery slope” Nikki found herself on a few years ago, she decided to stop being a “juggler” – someone who could give only a short time to each part of life.

“[Being a juggler] means I’m only holding onto these precious things for fleeting moments.  I don’t want that because these are the things I really value that are closest to my heart. I want to be really present when I’m teaching yoga and really be a mother.”

Nikki says “busy” has become a blanket response when people ask how we’re doing, but she now tells people that her life is full with many things. That then prompts people to ask what’s filling her life.

Know the signs of stress

Stress can cause many physical symptoms, including headaches, nervousness, irritability, mental health problems, acne and other skin issues, a faster heartbeat, muscle aches and tension, nausea, heartburn, digestive problems, irregular or painful periods, increased blood sugar and an increased risk of diabetes.

Clean up what’s around you

Nikki says the things around us, what we put on our skin and clean our clothes and houses with, can also be stressors. She recommends taking as much care about the chemicals we use on and around us as we do about other stressors. She started using ecostore products when her father became seriously ill, but says people don’t need to wait for life changing events like this to start using eco products.

Meditation and yoga

Meditation is proven to make us more resilient to stress, while yoga can be used to help us handle life situations at different points on the stress spectrum, Nikki says. For example, a seated pose is practice for calmer conditions, while more strenuous poses help us handle highly stressful situations, she says. And meditation doesn’t have to take up a huge amount of time - Nikki says waking meditation can be done while in the car on the way to work and might only take five minutes.

Sit

You might not think of sitting down if you’re in a stressful situation, but Nikki finds sitting in nature and sitting to meditate helps reduce stress.

She also uses the acronym I SIT as a way to remember four methods of dealing with stress - Identify, Strengths, Imbalance, and Tension.

Identify:
By identifying and journaling your stress triggers, you’ll notice patterns and can form strategies to deal with them, she says.

Strengths:
Rather than getting caught up in the demands of daily life, we can identify the things that strengthen us, like walks on the beach, and do more of them. Part of being strengthened, Nikki says, it also about getting real with yourself and acknowledging that you won’t be good at or enjoy everything.

Imbalance:
Striving for imbalance means deliberately shifting your life towards those things that strengthen you, Nikki says.

Tension:
Nikki recommends finding ways to release and reduce tension in your body and in those closest to you. Whether its massage, a warm bath, a long walk on the beach or a good talk with a friend.  Do what releases stress and tension and understand what your partners needs are to release stress. 

NikkiRalston-35.jpg
"Life is what you make of it and we all deserve to live a rich and fulfilling life"

Yoga poses for sports performance

I came to yoga as a competitive athlete, trying to stretch out my tight runner’s hip flexors and to calm my overly competitive spirit. From the beginning I loved the physical challenge of the poses and I left that very first class feeling, lighter, taller and more at peace with myself. Unlike many other forms of training, the practice of yoga unfolds over time to reveal many layers of physical benefits and personal revelations.

More and more people are discovering the many ways yoga can be used to improve athletic performance—from increasing mental concentration and improving flexibility and balance to preventing common injuries and honing skills in a particular sport.

Whether by creating an entire training program for elite athletes or by simply integrating a few yoga poses into an existing fitness routine, I utilise yoga as an effective cross-training tool. I’ve found that yoga helps athlete clients, fitness fiends and weekend warriors to feel, perform and live with more ease and increased energy.

Running

I know from experience that runners pound and hammer their bodies on different hard surfaces, resulting in injury or overuse to the muscles and tendons of the legs, feet, hips and lower back. One of the best yoga poses for runners is eka pada rajakapotasana prep (pigeon pose prep) which stretches many muscles, including the hip flexors, the gluteals and the piriformis, psoas, lower back and groin muscles. Also good for runners are any lunging poses that lengthen the achilles tendon and soleus muscles—for example, the low lunge. To deeply stretch the hamstrings, the best choice is parsvottanasana (intense side stretch pose).

 Eka pada rajakapotasana prep (pigeon pose prep)

0F2A9858.jpg
0F2A9901.jpg

 

Low lunge

0F2A9522 copy.jpg

Parsvottanasana 

0F2A9552.jpg
0F2A9524.jpg

 

Swimming

Swimmers tend to have a strong front body and often encounter shoulder problems. Rotator cuff injuries or shoulder tendonitis (also called ‘swimmer’s shoulder’) occur when the rhomboids are not held in place when the arm is raised in the freestyle stroke. Instead of the muscle carrying the weight of the arm, the tendon bears the burden. Over time the tendon becomes frayed and aggravated. In urdhva mukha svanasana (upward-facing dog), your instructor may tell you that the shoulder blades need to drop down the back - the same principle as swimming. Baddha konasana (bound angle pose), demonstrates a healthy external rotation of the hip. For many people, though, the hips remain locked and stiff. In a swimmer, this congestion can manifest in a faulty breaststroke kick. Hero pose (virasana) is also very good for swimmers’ ankles, helping the foundation of the kick.

 

Downward-facing dog and Upward-facing dog

0F2A9483 2 2.jpg
0F2A9492.jpg

Baddha konasana (bound angle)

0F2A9836.jpg
0F2A9946.jpg
0F2A9884_preview.jpeg

Virasana (hero pose)

You can sit on height under the buttocks to ease pressure on the knees.  Make sure when you place your feet that you are on the top of your foot and the ankle is not rolling out.  If this plantar flexion is difficult then fool a blanket or towel and place it under the front of the ankle joint.

 

Golf

Golfers need to repeatedly twist their body in one direction to swing a golf club. Mastering the sport of golf requires tremendous strength in the entire torso. To strengthen and flex the spine, try utthita parsvakonasana and bhujangasana (cobra pose). Golfers can also gain strength, flexibility and stability by doing twisting poses, such as ardha matsyendrasana (pretzel pose).

 

Utthita parsvakonasana (side angle pose)           Bhujangasana (cobra pose)

0F2A9535.jpg
0F2A9489.jpg

 

Ardha matsyendrasana (pretzel pose)

0F2A9848.jpg
0F2A9851.jpg

Skiing

Skiers often incur injuries in their low back and knees. Skiers also tend to have over-developed quadriceps and weak/tight hamstrings. These conditions can be improved by doing poses that strengthen the joints and muscles of the low back, knees and posterior legs. Examples to try are modified virabhadrasana (modified warrior pose with hands floor or blocks), paschimottanasana (seated forward fold pose), supta padangusthasana prep (supine hand-to-big-toe pose prep) and bhujangasana (cobra pose), the last of which is above.

 

Modified virabhadrasana 3 (modified warrior 3)      Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold pose)

0F2A9586_preview.jpeg
0F2A9829_preview.jpeg

Supta padangusthasana prep (supine hand-to-big-toe pose prep)

0F2A9864_preview.jpeg
0F2A9868_preview.jpeg

Tennis

Because of the demands of tennis, players often lose their suppleness in the back and torso and deplete the strength in their shoulders, elbows and wrists. Prasarita padottanasana (legs spread wide, forward bend while standing) is excellent for opening the shoulders; it also deeply stretches the hamstrings and adductors. Other good choices for tennis players are utkatasana (chair pose), which strengthens the abdominal muscles and stretches the achilles tendon, calves and spinal column, and virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2 pose), which builds strength and balance, especially in the lower body. Another excellent pose for strengthening and lengthening muscles of concern for tennis players is setubandha sarvangasana (bridge pose).

 

Prasarita padottanasana

0F2A9558_preview.jpeg
0F2A9560_preview.jpeg

 

Utkatasana (chair pose)                                        Revolved chair pose

0F2A9501.jpg
0F2A9503.jpg

 

virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2 pose)                        Reverse warrior

0F2A9530-2.jpg
0F2A9532-2.jpg

 

Setubandha sarvangasana (bridge pose)            Supported bridge

0F2A9615_preview.jpeg
0F2A9618_preview.jpeg

Cycling

Due to the nature of their sport, cyclists tend to have very tight hips and quadriceps. Due to kyphosis of the lower back, these athletes also need to stretch in ways that extend the spine; poses that address this spinal curvature help increase circulation around the lower vertebrae. Like swimmers, cyclists benefit most from poses that stretch and strengthen the back and open the chest. Examples are bhujangasana (cobra pose) (shown above), dhanurasana prep (bow pose prep), with hands reaching toward the feet) and ustrasana prep (camel pose prep), with hands on the sacrum rather or reaching to the heels). An optimal pose to stretch tight hips and quads is eka pada rajakapotasana prep (pigeon pose prep), which is above in the poses for runners.

 

Dhanurasana prep (bow pose prep)

0F2A9606_preview.jpeg
0F2A9609_preview.jpeg

 

Ustrasana prep (camel pose prep)

0F2A9643_preview.jpeg
0F2A9641_preview.jpeg

Meditation and breathing to reduce stress

With busy work routines, stress levels may start to rise. But this is also the perfect time to catch yourself and start to create change. We can try to avoid stress as much as we want but the fact is, stress is unavoidable, it’s a natural part of life that we just can’t escape. So how about instead of trying to avoid stress we start to shift our perspective on stress and implement some effective strategies for coping in stressful times.

nikkiralstonbreathing.jpg

Stress can actually be a really positive thing, it can help to motivate you, it can propel you to rise to the occasion and perform to your best - think of athletes or when you have to give a public speech. Stress can also move you into making change in your life.

We often look back at those stressful times in our life with hindsight and feel grateful because it was a catalyst to make major change. Negative stress however is a stress that a person feels they can’t handle and the situation becomes overwhelming. People deal with stress in different ways and the capacity to deal with stress changes throughout life - this is good to remember if we get frustrated by older relatives! However, those who have developed effective strategies to deal with day-to-day stressors are less likely to develop negative physical and psychological symptoms.

Modern day stress is more likely to be psychological in origin and prolonged in nature. Thanks to the work of the sympathetic nervous system, a surge of hormones are released into the body - adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine just to name a few. Over-exposure to these chemicals have a whole range of negative impacts on the body’s systems – such as the brain, cardiovascular, immune and digestive systems - as blood is drawn away from these vital organs in the ‘flight or fight’ response.

The chemical residue from stress leaves a trail in the body. You know how animals can smell and track fear? Well, this residue sits like battery acid in the muscles. Do you ever wake up with that stiff, burning sensation in your muscles? Listen to that sensation, it’s the early warning signs that your whole system is under stress, if ignored it can lead to a whole host of medical problems, like disease, adrenal fatigue and burnout.

Changing your response to stress

So that’s the bad news, but I invite you to consider this…what happens if we stop viewing stress as public enemy number one? By changing how we think about stress; can we start to change how our bodies respond?

I believe so, because under stress adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol are produced, but so is oxytocin popularly known as the ‘hugging hormone’, that enhances empathy, makes you more compassionate and caring, protects your cardiovascular system by helping heart cells to reproduce and well makes you feel good.

According to a 2013 study in the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal, scientists found that reaching out to other people during a stressful event was an effective way to improve your mood, and researchers suggest that the hormone oxytocin may help you accomplish just that.

Just as stress releases chemicals in the body, joy releases its own powerful brand of chemicals that can help dissolve pain and fill you with feelings of happiness, like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.

These chemicals are also the science behind yoga, for those who enjoy a connection with a scientific explanation. These joy chemicals are also highly addictive and you will come to enjoy and crave them.

The regular practice of yoga, including pranayama (breath work) and meditation, are powerful ways to arm yourself with a toolbox of techniques to help you navigate with more ease and grace through stressful times in your life, also helping you to become more aware of the early signs of stress and fatigue.

Here’s a guided 10 minute meditation to help calm and settle your mind and nervous system.

 

Settle and centre  on Vimeo

Breathing practices

Though practice of pranayama is safest and most effective when guided by an experienced teacher who knows your needs and capabilities, there are several simple techniques you can try at home as long as you’re in good health and you don’t push beyond your capacity.

The three breathing practices that follow—relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing; gentle ‘extended exhale’ breathing and nadi shodana (alternate nostril) breath—are a good introduction to pranayama. Each supports the parasympathetic nervous system, quiets the mind, and helps to bring about a state of more focused attention. As you continue to practice these techniques over time, you may start to notice when you are unintentionally holding your breath or breathing shallowly. You also may begin to associate patterns of the breath with your moods or states of mind. This self awareness is the first step toward using the practices of pranayama to help shift your patterns and, through regular practice, create positive change in your life.

Try each practice daily for a week and observe how it affects your body, breath, and mind in order to figure out which is best for you. You can do them at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal.

Basic breath awareness

This gentle introduction to diaphragmatic breathing teaches you how to breathe more fully and consciously.

Benefits

Quiets and calms the entire nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and improving self-awareness.

Try it

At least once a day, at any time.

How to

Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. Place a palm on your abdomen and breathe comfortably for a few moments, noticing the quality of your breath. Does the breath feel tense? Strained? Uneven? Shallow? Simply observe the breath without any judgment. Then gradually begin to make your breathing as relaxed and smooth as possible, introducing a slight pause after each in breath and out breath.

Once the breath feels relaxed and comfortable, notice the movement of the body. As you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands; as you exhale, feel the slight contraction of the abdomen. In a gentle way, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of the diaphragm and experience the pleasure of giving yourself a full, relaxed breath. Continue the practice for 6 to 12 breaths.

Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shoddana)

Alternating the breath between the nostrils balancing right and left hemispheres of the brain, and yin and yang energy in the body.

Benefits

Nadi shoddana is thought to be a cure all that can open all of our energy channels and bring calm and balance to the mind.

Try it

Once or twice a day

How to

Sit in a relaxed, comfortable position, breathing naturally and easily. When you feel ready, press your right thumb against your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril. At the end of your inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue with this pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril. Practice for at least three minutes. When you finish, take some time to allow your breath to return to normal, noticing the changes in your breath and mind.

The long exhale

This 1:2 breathing practice, which involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation, relaxes the nervous system.

Benefits

Can reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

Try it

Before bedtime to help support sleep, in the middle of the night when you’re struggling with insomnia, or at any time of the day to calm stress or anxiety. (In general, it’s best to avoid practicing 1:2 breathing first thing in the morning unless you’re experiencing anxiety. The relaxing effects of the practice tend to make it more difficult to get up and go on with your day.)

How to

Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a palm on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation. With your palm on your abdomen, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths. If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, you can begin to make them the same length over the next few breaths.

Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen. As long as the breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase the exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds once every few breaths. Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation increases and keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation, but not beyond. For example, if your inhalation is comfortably 4 seconds, do not increase the length of your exhalation to more than 8 seconds.

Keep in mind that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect, so take care that you don’t push yourself beyond your capacity. (If you do, you’ll likely activate the sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, and feel agitated rather than calm.)

If your breath feels uncomfortable or short, or if you’re gasping on the next inhalation, back off to a ratio that is more comfortable for 8 to 12 breaths. Then finish your practice with 6 to 8 natural, relaxed breaths.