Pranayama for Pedestrians
For many people the most convenient and practical exercise is walking—and with proper clothing it can be done in all kinds of weather. Walking not only conditions the heart and lungs, but also burns calories, alleviates stress, stimulates digestion and elimination, and expels stale air and carbon dioxide from the lungs.
It doesn’t matter whether you are old or young, stiff or flexible, in vibrant health or recovering from a major trauma or illness. Whatever your condition, there is a pace and style of walking that will leave you feeling more refreshed and energized. Even an experienced runner can still find a cardiovascular challenge in combining yogic breathing techniques with walking. Why not substitute low-impact walking and save your joints from trauma?
Walking while employing special breathing techniques called pranayamas—such as exhaling twice as long as you inhale—compounds the ability to expel volatile toxins from the lungs. A prolonged exhalation emphasizes contraction of the abdominal muscles, thus activating the navel center, imparting additional heat and vitality.
Observing the breath as you walk also clears the mind of mental chatter and self-talk. If you’re thinking that that sounds like a formula for meditation-in-action, you’re right. A brisk walk with breath awareness is mentally refreshing. It may leave you feeling as if you’ve just finished meditating rather than exercising vigorously.
Just as with conventional pranayama practice, the benefits of “pedestrian pranayama” are possible only with good posture. Good posture and form while walking have more than just aesthetic value—they facilitate proper breathing. Because we have been walking since the first year of life, we have stopped paying attention to how we do it. For that reason it’s worth taking a fresh look at walking.
4 Walks with Awareness
Walk 1: Body Awareness
Our goal in this first walk is to develop understanding and awareness of how the body moves during an extended walk. We have already observed how the muscles and joints move during walking; now we can play with these elements.
Begin by loosening up with a few stretches, then try a few tentative steps. Slowly build your awareness of how the foot contacts the ground, the push-off from the toes, the effect in the calf muscles and hamstrings, the gentle sway of the trunk, the arm swing. Begin gently, and slowly increase your pace. Make awareness your goal, not speed.
Check periodically for unnecessary tension. Survey the body from head to foot, as if you were lying on your back doing a systematic relaxation. Pay particular attention to the areas most likely to be tense—the neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips. Cultivate a sense of lightness, ease, and unlimited energy. Enjoy walking.
At some point try lengthening your stride. Taking larger steps will cause your arms to swing out a little further and accelerate your pace. You can also try keeping the arms bent at the elbow, crossing the center line of the body at the sternum with each arm swing. Move from the elbows rather than the fist. This motion massages the heart region.
Here’s something else to try: Visualize the navel center pulling you along effortlessly. If you habitually lead with the head, chest, or pelvis, you may find this image energizing.
Walk for 10 or 15 minutes or until you feel tired. Then gradually slacken your pace, and end with a few stretches. You can expand this first walk into several sessions. There’s no rush.
Walk 2: Breath Awareness
Again start slowly. Be aware of the whole body as you walk. Relax and let the movement be graceful and easy. When you are comfortable, shift your attention to your breath. Don’t try to change your breathing or to correct it in any way; simply observe the motion of respiration.
Are you expanding your abdomen or your chest with each inhalation? Are you actively contracting your abdomen at the end of exhalation? As your pace increases, how does your breathing change? Are you shifting from abdominal breathing (with full expansion and contraction of the abdomen) to chest breathing?
How deep is your breathing? How many steps do you take during inhalation? How many during exhalation? What is the length of inhalation compared to exhalation? This information will be valuable in the walks that follow. For now, just observe the breath without changing it.
Walk 3: Cultivating the Breath
Continue to cultivate a smooth, effortless walk, picking up the pace as it feels natural. Observe your breathing. If you find that you are breathing with the chest, you have some homework to do. You will breathe more efficiently, and eventually have more endurance, if you learn abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing. When you are breathing abdominally, the abdomen expands during inhalation (driven by the diaphragm) and contracts during exhalation. Cultivate this deep abdominal breathing.
Now monitor the length of your inhalation and exhalation, using your steps to count the duration of each. Gradually adjust the ratio of exhalation to inhalation so that both phases of the breath are equal. If you were exhaling for two counts and inhaling for three, try to lengthen your exhalation to three steps or shorten your inhalation to two steps, whichever feels more natural. The goal is to make them equal in length.
Next, explore your capacity. If you are inhaling and exhaling for two steps, then increase it to three steps. If you were breathing in a three-step count, then increase it to four steps. Maintain the same count for both inhalation and exhalation, and make sure you are still comfortable with the length of breath. You can also explore your capacity by picking up the walking pace, but then you’ll need more steps per breath to maintain the same length of inhalation and exhalation.
You may find that you can sustain a longer count for only a short time before you need to revert to a shorter count again. After “resting” with a shorter breath, try lengthening it again. Feel free to make changes as needed, but try to keep the length of inhalation and exhalation equal. Then gradually slow down your pace and breathe naturally.
Walk 4: Lengthening the Exhalation
Begin with a slow, gentle pace, warming up gradually. When you’re warmed up, expand your awareness to include your breath. As before, observe your breath before changing it. Cultivate abdominal breathing at a 1:1 ratio of exhalation to inhalation. Next, try to lengthen the exhalation so that it is longer than the inhalation. If your inhalation is three counts, exhale four or five counts. Make sure you can sustain the count comfortably. Lengthen the exhalation by contracting the abdominal muscles and pushing the navel toward the spine. Let the abdomen out slowly on inhalation to prevent a gasp and to keep the breath flowing smoothly.
In this way continue lengthening the exhalation. Your goal is to make it twice as long as the inhalation. Another way to achieve a 2:1 ratio is to shorten the inhalation. Either way, keep it comfortable. Watch your capacity closely. If you feel a strain in your breathing or the terrain changes and your exertion increases, return to a more comfortable ratio. You are building capacity. It takes time.
Take Your Breath for a Walk
The pool is closed for repairs? Your friend forgot to pick you up for tennis? Don’t mope around the house. Slip into your walking shoes and point your eyes toward the horizon. There is much benefit and pleasure to be had in a simple walk. The walking breath will increase your endurance, and invigorate your body and mind. If the yogis’ penchant for self-observation has rubbed off on you, there’s plenty to see without even looking at the scenery. The progression of attention from body to breath to energy and mind works while walking as well as in meditation—just keep the breath flowing and one foot on the ground.
About the teacher
Michael Grady has been teaching yoga breathing practices for over 25 years. Read more