–6 Minute Read–
Life begins with one breath and ends with another. It’s not a mystery or magic (or maybe it is?) that our life depends on breathing.
Yet does everyone breathe in a healthy way? I find it similar to eating, in a way. Not everything we eat serves our body well. So it is with the breaths we take. Though we may not be aware of it – the breaths we take can increase or decrease the quality and quantity of our life span.
The importance of breath is not a new discovery, yet the awareness around it has gained momentum over the past few decades. We’ve got to learn that breathing is a practice to be mastered, that as Iyengar pointed out well, “if you can control the breath, you can control the mind”.
So how exactly can we learn better breathing? What kind of a practice do we need to follow?
Yoga Practice: Breath – Life Force Relationship
The image is taken from Donna Farhi’s Yoga Mind, Body, Spirit,
Breath is in a constant state of oscillation; we breathe in and out as we pursue our daily activities. Everything else, physical and psychological, is built from the central motif of this constant oscillation. Donna Farhi talks about this oscillating movement of breath as a “perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life”. Life can bring difficulties and pain, as well as ease and joy. If we are open to this ongoing process, moving with the breath, life can move us forward. Yet if we are unable to welcome the changes of life, we start resisting and restricting our breath.
So what do we mean by moving with the breath? If you’ve been to even one yoga class of any kind, you’d remember that poses (asanas) are accompanied by an inhale and exhale, and we move through the class with this constant oscillation of our breath. Let’s look into the logic behind this.
* When bending forward or twisting – exhale; when lifting or opening the chest – inhale (Images taken from this Yoga Journal article)
Breathing is happening both consciously (can be slowed down willingly for instance) and unconsciously (automatic, to keep pumping blood, fluids and vital energy through our body). For many years, yogis developed complicated protocols releasing the power of breath, also known as pranayama practices.
Prana means breath, life, energy, strength, vitality. Ayama means length, stretching or extension. Hence pranayama means the extension of the life force / breath and its control.
Our state of mind is deeply linked to the quality of prana; we can control the flow of prana through the flow of our breath. The quality of our breath can influence the state of our mind, and the state of our mind can impact our quality of breath.
External factors, like stress, exemplify the relationship between breath and mind. When we are stressed, several things are happening in our body at the same time. In response to acute stress, the sympathetic nervous system acts like the gas pedal triggering our “fight or flight” response. This helps us get the burst of energy (increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate) when we face danger, be it a lion in the jungle or a late night call from our boss.
After the threat is gone, the body returns to normal with the help of the parasympathetic system which promotes the “rest and digest” response. In the modern world, the threats are becoming more and more constant. If I face a lion in the jungle I run: it catches me or I escape. Either way the threat is gone after a short while. Yet the threats we face today are more of an ongoing kind, from traffic and demanding jobs, all the way to war. Hence chronic stress is becoming more and more of a global concern. Applying the right relaxation techniques, such as abdominal breathing and yoga, are important ways to counter the stress response triggered by the ongoing threats.
How to Breathe?
First try to do nasal breathing (mouth closed), rather than mouth breathing, throughout the day. This has several benefits from the more obvious ones (the nose acts like an air filter and humidifier) to the lesser known ones (nasal breathing slows down your breathing, hence a good anti-anxiety trick). You can build on this simple technique by practicing some other techniques used commonly by yoga practitioners as below (Note that this is not a comprehensive list, yet just a sample to showcase some techniques):
- Diaphragmatic Breathing (or belly/ abdominal breath): Follow the steps below:
- Relax your shoulders and sit back or lie down.
- Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.
- Inhale through your nose for two seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen and feeling your stomach move out.
- Breathe out for two seconds through pursed lips while pressing on your abdomen.
- Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath): Several studies mentioned that the vibrations happening during this technique stimulate sensory receptors that signal the vagus nerve to induce a calming effect.This techniques is used specifically during the yoga practice, rather than daily life. Below are the steps to take:
- Inhale through your nose.
- Open your mouth and exhale slowly, making a “HA” sound.
- After a few times of the above, close the mouth keeping the back of your throat in the same shape you used to make the “HA,” as you exhale through the nose.
- You can follow this technique during the practice.
3. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril Breathing): This technique is used mostly at the end of the yoga practice preparing the mind for meditation. Yet you can also do it anytime you feel the need to, as it also balances out the difference in right and left nostrils. This technique lowers the blood pressure and improves mental focus. Though it is safe for most people, if you have low blood pressure be careful in the application.
* Image taken from here
- Take a comfortable seated position (e.g. lotus, crossed leg, kneeling down, sitting on a chair are some options).
- Close your right hand in a gentle fist in front of your nose, then extend your thumb, and ring – little fingers together.
- Close your right nostril with your thumb.
- Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your ring – little finger.
- Open your right nostril and exhale slowly through it.
- Inhale through the right nostril then close it.
- Open your left nostril and exhale slowly through it. This completes the cycle.
- Repeat 3- 5 times.
Observing how we breathe, and applying techniques to slow down and balance our breathe can help us regulate how we respond to stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and even alter how we feel. “There is a very direct relationship between breath rate, mood state, and autonomic nervous system (fight or flight, and rest and digest) state,” says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD AT Harvard Medical School who studies yoga and meditation.
So let’s tap into this simple yet powerful source we have at hand, and see how it improves our lives.