Deep and healthy breathing is essential to relaxation, longevity, and sustained high energy. Contrary to popular and unconscious belief, one's whole abdomen should expand with every breath, indicating that the lungs are inflating fully and maximum oxygen exchange is taking place. To improve the health of your lungs, abstain from nasty habits like smoking tobacco, include some type of cardiovascular exercise, and try the breathing exercises listed below. All of them should be done only through your nose; and if you can learn these in person from a qualified yoga teacher, then by all means do so. For more movements from the Element Training program, click on the figure at left.
Breathing is greatly improved when the lungs are allowed to inflate fully. A good position to help with this is as follows: lay down on your back with a rolled-up pillow or small cushion under your spine at heart level. Breathe normally at first, relaxing your whole body and particularly your internal chest, letting go of tension with every exhale. Once you feel calm and centred, proceed to abdominal and tripartie breathing or go about your day with asthma symptoms relieved. The yoga mudra is also a good chest opener, especially when it's done in locust pose.
First of all, take a moment to lie down on your back and relax. Feel yourself gently resting on the floor, and let your tension melt down into the earth. Now place one hand on your chest, and the other just below your navel. Gently draw the breath down to your abdomen; expand your belly but not your chest, so your lower hand moves but your upper one doesn't. Once you've got a feel for this type of breathing, do it often, and not just lying down; it's relaxing for body and mind, increases oxygen exchange in the lungs, and can improve one's health to a surprising extent. Breathing into just the top of the lungs only is a common habit, and learning to use the lower lungs is a great way to improve it.
Sometimes called "Complete Breath" in yoga, this is a breath that makes use of the full lung and realizes the full potential of abdominal breathing. Lie down and relax as before, and start by drawing the breath down into your abdomen. Then let the air fill your lungs to the top, building a pillar of air from abdomen to ribcage to collarbone. Now release and let the air down from collarbone to ribcage to abdomen. For a variation that always feels good to me, inflate from bottom to top, then deflate the bottom first and finally the top.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
A relaxing breath that's said to bring balance to the body and mind. Sit upright and relaxed in Rock Pose, cross-legged, or in a chair that allows for good posture. Close your right nostril with your right thumb, and inhale through your left nostril for a count of four. Retain the breath for a count of two as you release your right nostril, and close your left nostril with your right ring and pinky fingers. Now exhale through the right nostril for a count of eight, then inhale for a count of four, retain and switch nostrils. Go back and forth for as long as it feels right. The 4-2-8 timing is great for absorbing oxygen.
In Ashtanga yoga, this is combined with a series of earth-style movements to enhance their effect. It's sometimes called the Darth Vader breath because of the throaty sound it makes. Draw your chin toward your neck just a little bit, and gently expand your windpipe. As you inhale and exhale, normally but just a little more deeply, you should hear the sound of the famous Star Wars villain. Any power yoga teacher will tell you if you're doing it right; combine this breath with earth-style movements for maximum effect.
This breath works to increase one's lung capacity. Start by sitting cross-legged, in a posture-encouraging chair, or in Rock Pose upright but relaxed. Now simply inhale and exhale quickly and deeply. A bellows is an accordian-like tool that blows air on a fireplace; like a bellows, you shoudl draw air in and out quite firmly but without undue strain.
Breath of Fire
The diaphragm is the abdominal muscle that guides your breathing. When it relaxes during an exhale, it expands into its dome-like resting shape and gently pushes the lungs upward. When it contracts during an inhale, the dome flattens and draws the lungs downward, causing them to inflate. Forceful exhalation is done with other abdominal muscles, whereas forceful inhalation is done with the diaphragm; the breath of fire uses forceful exhalation, and the breath of flame uses forceful inhalation.
To do the breath of fire, first sit cross-legged or in Rock Pose, upright but relaxed. Inhale about halfway, then exhale forcefully through your nose... relax on the inhale and let your lungs inflate on their own... then exhale forcefully again. Do a round of nine exhales, then three deep relaxed breaths, then nine more. Add more sets only as you feel comfortable; this is a potent breath and not one to push your limits on. You may have noticed that blowing your nose before you start is a pretty good idea.
Breath of Flame
This is the counterpart to the breath of fire, and will strengthen and tone the diaphragm muscle. Inhale forcefully, but not so deeply as to strain the lungs, and let yourself exhale without effort. Repeat nine times and don't overdo it. This is not an official yoga breath, and there may be a reason for that that I don't know of, so perform this breath at your own risk.