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Recently, a few students in the lobby confessed that they really dislike the breathing exercise we do at the beginning of class, Pranayama or Standing Deep Breathing.

Oh boy, could I relate to their complaints! I used to really struggle through both sets. My shoulders were sore and tired, my neck was creaky, and breathing so deeply felt uncomfortable to lungs that were not used to it. I could suck my stomach in during the inhale, but during the exhale – what? How do you even do that?

Sometimes I was so resistant to even taking that first breath that I imagined myself hollering out an agonized “Noooooo!” during the exhale.

But now as class begins, I want to call out a full six-second, “Yaaaaaaayyyy!”

You see, over time, my shoulders have gotten stronger and opened up, my lung capacity has increased, and I’ve learned to engage the muscles in my abdomen and legs that help me feel anchored as I increase the range of motion in my neck.

I can really feel this first breathing exercise opening my body, giving me energy and setting me up for a great class.

A few tips for making friends with Pranayama/Standing Deep Breathing

  • Go super easy during the first set. Seriously, use the first few breaths as a kind, curious diagnostic tool, just noticing your neck, shoulders, legs, abdomen, feet on the floor as you move gently into the inhale, gently into the exhale. Over time, increase your intensity, but way better to start class asking yourself “How do I actually feel today? Could moving help me feel better?” than moaning to yourself, “This stinks!”
  • Focus especially well on one physical aspect of the exercise during each set. Even though you’re only moving your head, neck, and shoulders in this exercise, the rest of your body is actively engaged, and you’ll hear cues that address your toes up through the top of your head. That can also feel overwhelming at the beginning of class. While listening to each cue from the podium is instructive and also a big part of the meditative aspect of this practice, it’s okay to decide that you personally are specifically going to concentrate on pulling your belly button in or pressing your inner thighs together or really filling your lungs.
  • Really focus on keeping your shoulders relaxed during the exhale. Your shoulders should be tired by the end of this exercise, but if you’re hunching your shoulders up, you’re making it harder than it has to be. Shoulders will rise on the inhale, but really think about relaxing and letting them go on the exhale. Give those guys a break!
  • Practice outside of the studio. If you’ve been sitting for a while at home or if you’re feeling agitated, stand up and do 3-4 Pranayama breaths (and then do a quick Half Moon Pose if you like). This feels absolutely amazing, both calming and invigorating. When you know you only have to do a few breaths and that it’s not the preamble to a full 90-minute heated class, it’s easier to connect with the physical and energetic benefits of the movement and the deep breathing. (Just contracting your thighs can give you a surge of energy!) Then when you do the exercise during class, you’ll be able to find those benefits more easily, and they just might outweigh the challenges.

And don’t forget to read more about Pranayama in this post from March 2017!

–Ellen Olson-Brown, The Hot Yoga Factory Chelmsford

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