Are you Breathing?
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
The first thing we do when we’re born is take a deep breath in. And the last thing we do when we die is take a long breath out. Inhale and exhale. This is the constant flow of our lives. Our breath is always with us, every moment of every day yet we often take it for granted.
The respiratory system is fascinating. It can function completely automatically or, if we choose, we can take control of our breathing, and that is where the magic happens.
Just for a few moments, I invite you to sit comfortably and just watch the natural flow of your breath. Without trying to change or control anything. Simply observe the inhale and the exhale. Close your eyes and just breath.
Next, I invite you to gently start to take control of your breath. Start by exhaling everything out completely. Then, through your nose, slowly and purposefully start an inhale breath. Counting up to 5. Pause here for a moment. Then start your exhale breath, slowly and purposefully. Breathing out to the count of 5. Pause here for a moment as well. Close your eyes and repeat this a couple of times.
Did you perhaps feel a bit calmer after doing that? Did you spend a few moments just focused on your breath, totally in the present moment? This is the power of connecting with your breath.
Practicing conscious breathing is the most important part of the Yoga practice. You can walk into a Yoga class and do all the poses beautifully but not be breathing - that’s a stretching class. You can come to sit in a comfortable position and breath consciously for the whole class and you are practicing Yoga perfectly. When we control our breath we consciously place our awareness on the breath. This teaches us to live in the present moment, to not gloss over or miss out on all the intricacies and magic of everyday life. All the practices of Yoga teach us that life only happens in this moment right now and your breath is the perfect and most simple tool to use to practice this. Conscious connection with the breath is essential to training yourself to be present in your practice and in your life. Being aware of every breath and every movement is an integral part of the practice.
If you don’t breath, you die. Breathing is literally how we survive, but in this stressful life, we don’t actually breathe properly. We only use the topmost part of the lungs every day but don’t take our breath down into the depths of our lungs. We don’t actually pay any attention to moving that oxygen down into our lungs and into our cells. We don’t allow the lungs to fully inflate and deflate so we’re not bringing in enough oxygen and not breathing out enough carbon dioxide.
Breathing deeply helps to improve your health, bring focus to the mind and helps to control the autonomic nervous system, which takes you out of the fight/flight state and relieves stress.
When you’re scared or stressed or get a fright, your breath is shallow and quick. Using deep breathing can calm you down and bring your heart rate back to its normal level.
When you are in an emotional state (angry, sad, nervous, agitated), you can use your breath to focus on this moment, right now to bring you out of that stressful state. Deep breathing brings oxygen back into the body so you don’t hyperventilate.
If your breath is deep, slow and regular, your mind will be calm and settled. If you are breathing erratically, there is no way your mind can be calm. The mind and breath are inextricably linked, the body and breath are inextricably linked. If you start to control your breath, you are one step closer to taking control of your body and taking control of your mind.
Patanjali’s fourth limb on the path to Enlightenment is Pranayama. Pranayama is known as breathing techniques in the West but it is a lot more in-depth than that. Prana means life force energy. It is the energy that propels us forward in life. Yama means to restrict and Ayama means to expand. So, Pranayama means the expansion and restriction of our life force energy. It is the practice of using the breath to control and direct the life force energy within. There are many different types of Pranayama, some that increase your energy and warm you up and some that suppress your energy and cool you down.
There are many different types of Pranayama. The most important one for our physical practice is Ujjayi breath. Deep full breathing, in and out through your nose, slightly constricting the back of your throat so you make an audible sound with your breath. The sound of the ocean or of Darth Vader. The sound of the breath gives your monkey mind something to focus on to stay in the present moment. Ujjayi means “Victory”. Victory over the body and victory over the mind.
Remember if you’re not breathing, you die. So, don’t do that. In asana practice, you move with your breath. You want the whole movement to take up the full breath, never holding your breath or moving without breathing. Always start with your inhale breath, then start the movement. Complete the movement, then finish the breath. Start your exhale, start your movement. Complete the movement, complete the breath. When you hold the poses, you should be breathing deeply and fully, and adjusting the poses with each breath. If you cannot breathe in a pose, back off a bit until you can breathe deeply and fully. The entire physical practice centers around the breath.
Using the breath in your practice helps you to learn how to use your breath off the mat to stay present. When you are in a moment of stress, upset or panic, you know to come back to your breath, breathe deeply and calm yourself down.
There isn’t any magic trick or special technique to learn to breathe deeply. All you have to do is sit quietly for a few moments, place your attention on your breath and observe. Then, start to deepen and lengthen your breath. Use the full capacity of your lungs. Use all the muscles involved to really expand and contract your lungs. Invite the new, fresh oxygen and energy into your lungs, into your body. And let all the energy that no longer serves you go with the exhale.
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