Pranayama and Breathing techniques
Pranayama and breathing techniques are a profound addition to your daily asana practice. They have many physical and emotional benefits. Although they appear simple they are often quite challenging to practice and subtley intense in their effect. Working with the breath has a direct effect on the body's physiology (altering blood gases). For that reason your should seek the guidance of a yoga teacher qualified to teach pranayama. If you have medical conditions you should check with your doctor the safety and suitability of the specific techniques and seek guidance of a yoga therapist who has training in using pranayama to address medical conditions.
Initially bringing awareness to the breath can make us feel self conscious and which can make the breath more shallow and rapid. This is fine. Start by just counting the natural length of your inhale and exhale, for as long as you need. When it starts to feel more comfortable see if you can even up the length or inhale and exhale. You may need to shorten the longer one to acheive this.
There are actually 4 parts to the breath - inhale (puraka), exhale (rechaka) and holding breath after exhale (bahar kumbhaka) and inhale (antar kumbhaka). In writing we represent this by it's integra ratio 1:0:1:0. This is even inhale and exhale. When we add kumbhaka at the same length (after lots of practice) it's 1:1:1:1.
Remember pranayama should not be practiced with a competitive attitude. Anyone can force themselves to hold their breath. Pranayama means expansion of prana and this is only achieved by a relaxed empowering of the pranayama. No imposition, every aspect of the technique is achieved with comfort and ease.
Rechaka (long exhale) is a safe pranayama if practiced within your comfortable limits; it is suitable and beneficial for people with many physical and mental health conditions. Having started from the base of comfortable and even length inhale and exhale, we now lengthen the exhale, working towards an exhale that is twice as long as the inhale (1:0:2:0). When that feels comfortable we can introduce a pause/short hold after the exhale; when this lengthens into a hold it is called bahar kumbhaka (exhale hold) (1:0:2:1).
Video coming soon!
Force exhale technique
When you are very comfortable with rechaka pranayama (long exhale) and bahar kumbhaka (hold after exhale) you might like to try this stronger practice. This is the basic technique for practices like Kapalabhati and Agni Sari as taught by my teacher Clive Sheridan. It is contraindicated if you have high blood pressure and you should check with your doctor if it is safe for you and your yoga teacher to ascertain correct technique.