Chair Yoga Breathwork to Improve Health and Well-being

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Chair Yoga Breathwork to Improve Health and Well-being

You’d have thought that by the time I was in my 50s, I’d know how to breathe, right? I mean, all of my life I’d been told to take deep breaths when anxious or worried or scared. BUT, the thing is that no one told me (or maybe I wasn’t listening?) HOW to take those deep breaths. It wasn’t until I started consistently practicing yoga that I realized my concept of taking deep breaths was focused only on the inhale. I wasn’t fully exhaling. So, my deep breaths weren’t being optimized in the ways that can so benefit our health and well-being – in ways that help with nervous system regulation. I had never learned about breathwork – techniques / practices that intentionally focus on the breath. These days, when I’m teaching chair yoga to those with mobility issues, I include breathwork practice in all of my classes.

Slow mindful chair yoga (or mat yoga) is all about focusing on connecting movement and breath as a means of quieting the chatter of the mind. So, I start every yoga class with the breathwork practice of being aware of and focusing on the breath entering and leaving the body. I then also include other breathwork practices during class – practices that I’m happy to share here with you. After a little bit of background information.

Pranayama (Breathwork) within the Eight Limbs of Yoga

Pranayama can be broadly defined as breathwork and is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Two others are the yamas and nayamas, which represent ethical guidelines for living a peaceful and happy life – for “right living.” I’ve written about ahimsa, one of the yamas (restraints), which means “non-harm.” I’ve also written about one of the niyamas (positive duties): santosha, which means “contentment.”  Four of the limbs are related to meditation: prayahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (focused concentration), dhyana (meditate absorption), and samadhi (enlightenment). Here is a very useful overview of the eight limbs. Asana (movement or posture) is but one of the eight limbs. 

Unfortunately, many people in the West, especially in the fitness world, seem to think asana IS yoga. Lately, however, incorporating breathwork into yoga classes has become more common. Maybe we’re finally moving away from the idea that yoga is mainly a form of physical exercise? And leaning into the idea that yoga is all about regulating the nervous system – all about bringing about positive changes in how we treat ourselves and others on a daily basis?

21st Century Breathwork in the United States

In 2020 (at the beginning of the Covid pandemic), James Nestor published Breath:The New Science of a Lost Art. It was an immediate bestseller at a time when everyone was looking for ways to manage their anxiety. Nestor shares helpful information for someone looking to begin practicing breathwork and who wants an understanding of the science behind how breathing techniques that intentionally focus on the breath (breathwork) help with nervous system regulation. Breath offers explanations for how breathwork helps move our bodies into more relaxed and stress-free states. And, it goes over the well-documented benefits of slow deep breathing, including lowering blood pressure, calming the mind, and having broader mental health benefits. 

Tradition of Breathwork

BUT, breathwork is most definitely not a lost art. For thousands of years, Ayurveda & Yoga & traditional Chinese medicine have employed breathing techniques to calm the body and the mind. In Yoga, pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga. And is thus taught in many yoga classes. Pranayama can begin with simple breath work, but the scope of Prana (which connotes breath) in traditional Yogic teachings is not limited only to breath & respiration. I’m not going to dive into the full scope of pranayama here. I’m instead focusing on simple breathwork that can be done in a chair. For a deeper dive into pranayama, I’d suggest starting with B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing.   

Who Shouldn’t Do Breathwork

Some of the advanced pranayama you’d come across when reading Iyengar or taking a Kundalini Yoga class or spending a month at an ashram in India can involve significantly retaining (holding) the breath. Others can involve rapid breathing. Before embarking on advanced pranayama practices, one should always consult with their physician. Especially if they have heart failure or feel breathless after minimal exertion. But, both the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association recommend practicing simple breathwork to improve physical health and well-being. 

The breathwork practices I’m going to discuss (and demonstrate) should all be perfectly safe for most people. But, as I always tell my students, honor your body and its sensations. I have two rules in my classes: No Pain, No Pain. And, No Dizziness. If you feel any light-headedness when doing breathwork, take a break. If you continue to feel light-headedness, stop for the time being. And, after making sure you’re sufficiently hydrated, consult with a physician.

State or Trait Breathwork?

Practicing breathwork can be part of a yoga class – chair yoga or mat yoga. It can also stand alone as a practice. Or, it can prepare you to sit in meditation. In whatever context, tuning into breath can help change your energy. This change could be one of state or of trait. A state is a temporary way of being, while a trait tends to be a more stable and enduring characteristic. State changes are thus ways to help you in the moment, whereas trait changes are more lasting. For example, if I am feeling frustrated by traffic, I might benefit from a state change – from calming down in the moment. But, if I find myself constantly frustrated by traffic, I might benefit from becoming more patient & better able to practice acceptance, both of which would be trait changes.

I’m going to share breathwork practices that are suitable for each type of change. As I mentioned earlier, my chair yoga (and mat yoga) classes always begin with breath awareness practice. Then, generally about midway through class, we do a breathwork practice that can be ideal for practicing at any moment a person feels the need to change their energy. Towards the end of class – before we begin our period of rest & relaxation (aka savasana) – I incorporate a breathwork practice that can also work for producing state changes. But, if practiced regularly over time, these practices are ideal for eliciting trait changes.

Breathwork Practice for State Change

My favorite practices to incorporate in the middle of class are Lion’s Breath, Pursed Lip Breathing, and Breath of Joy.  Each of these are energizing. I often tell students that any one of these could replace an afternoon cup of coffee. Each also has other benefits. Lion’s breath can alleviate stress and stimulate your throat and upper chest. Pursed Lip Breathing (aka Blowing the Birthday Candles Out) can reduce anxiety and improve exercise tolerance. Breath of Joy wakes up your entire system. And, as I often tell my students, is ideal for pressing pause before sending a frustration or anger based text or email!

This 9-minute video includes all three (and a special guest appearance by my cat, Oscar). I encourage you to watch and practice along with me a few times. And to then try to incorporate these breathwork practices (one at a time is best) into your life when needed.

Breathwork Practice for Trait Change

My favorite practices to incorporate at the end of class are Square (or Box) Breath and Bee Breath. In my personal practice and when I do workshops where we have more time to practice breathwork, my favorites are Ratio Breath and Alternate Nostril Breathing. Each of these are grounding and calming; and, if practiced regularly (at least 4-5 days a week) for 5-10 minutes can bring about real change in how your body responds to the chaos and stress of life. 

Square Breath is well-known as The Navy SEALS breath because they are taught to use it in high-stress situations. My version of Ratio Breath has been heavily influenced by Kristine Weber of Subtle Yoga, with whom I’ve done two Chair Yoga Teacher Trainings and several other workshops. It is NOT the 4-7-8 breath that has become ubiquitous lately. It’s similar, but doesn’t involve such a long pause after the inhale and doesn’t have to have such a long exhale. 

The Navy SEALS seem to be using Square Breath for state change. So there is, of course, overlap between the two types. All breathwork practices help ease anxiety, which can be a state change. But, it can also be a trait change if a person actually becomes less anxious in general over time. To make real changes, we have to make them over time – we have to REPEAT a new behavior or practice over a period of time. So, practicing Square Breath every once in a while to relax or sleep is not the same as a 5-10 minute daily practice. To change over time, we have to show up and practice. We have to commit.

This 13-minute video includes Bee Breath (aka Bhramari), Alternate Nostril Breathing (an accessible version of Nadi Shodhana), and Square Breath. It also includes a special guest appearance by my dog, Annabelle, and some slightly annoying outside noise for the first few seconds. I encourage you to watch and practice along with me a few times. And to then try to incorporate one of these breathwork practices into your life for 5-10 minutes daily for a few weeks. 

My Personal Go-to for Regulating my Nervous System: Ratio Breath

There is no one-size-fits-all breathwork practice that is THE one for every body. That is why I have included several different practices above. However, I’d like to share a video that includes one practice I have found to be particularly helpful. I like it because I like how my body feels when my exhale is longer than my inhale (which is supposedly a way to hack your vagus nerve). My body likes that I can extend my exhale without having to then include an extended pause at the end of my exhale. I find a long pause at the end of an exhale to be anxiety-making instead of anxiety-reducing.

So, I offer you this 22-minute video of Ratio Breathing (plus some gentle warm-up movements) as one you could follow along with for several days as you build a consistent breathwork practice

I teach chair yoga to those seeking a more gentle yoga practice (and mat yoga for recovering alcoholics & addicts) in Birmingham, Alabama. I include breathwork practices in my classes because my main objective as a teacher is to offer yoga to support self care, to increase feelings of agency, to help change mood.

If you’d like to join me in a class, please check out my offerings or contact me.