As we’ve transitioned from warmer to colder weather, I’m focusing my yoga classes on the power of the breath: on using this breath to deepen our practice and guide our movements, to strengthen our respiratory system and to ward off respiratory viruses. Breathing consciously is a powerful act. When we learn to control our breath, we give ourselves the power to control not only our respiration, but our mind as well. Yes, our mind can be controlled by simply inhaling and exhaling! Imagine having the power to control that wild stallion that lives in your head? The one that hijacks your thoughts, wrecking your calm, stealing your peace of mind; the one that runs wild with thoughts, while you frantically grasp for its mane, in an attempt to gain control, desperately holding on for dear life!
Yogis know this breath control as pranayama; a sanskrit word incorporating prana, life force, with yama, to control. Some yogis, like myself, believe it to be even more essential to our yoga practice than the postures or asanas themselves. Breathing is both a conscious and unconscious act. We breathe every minute of every day, waking or sleeping, without even making a decision to do so, but we can also learn to control our breath by conscious decision. When we learn to breathe consciously, we create a quick and direct line of communication to our brain, and from our brain to our body. By controlling our breath, we manage both our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic, which controls the ‘fight or flight’ reflex, and the parasympathetic, controlling the ‘rest and relax’ reflex. Dr. Herbert Benson, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is a cardiologist and also the author of ‘’The Relaxation Response’’ (www.relaxationresponse.org). Benson proved that by breathing in a controlled fashion, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and counters the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response to daily stresses, eliciting the calm rest and relax response. What an incredible ability we have with the simple physiological act of inhalation and exhalation! Two acts – so powerful! The old adage of “taking a deep breath” to relax surprisingly holds water.
Breath and Stress:
When we are stressed or anxious, we tend to breathe more rapidly, causing us even more stress and anxiety. By inhaling deeply we can change that message, and tell our brain to understand that all is well. We can overrule the automatic nervous response and teach our mind and our body to remain calm. When practiced daily, this powerful yogic breathing can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and stress, and increase calm, clear mindedness.
Ready to begin?
- Sit comfortably, stand relaxed, or lay on your mat with your head, neck and spine aligned.
- Close your eyes and relax your body, and begin to notice your breath as it passes through your nostrils.
- Close your lips gently together so you’re inhaling and exhaling through your nose only.
- Tune in to the cool sensation of the inhalation and the warming sensation of the exhalation. You can place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your abdomen to feel the breath entering and exiting your body. Feel your chest rise, taking the breath in and then feel your belly rise, filling further with the same breath. When you exhale, feel your belly release the breath and your lungs emptying completely.
- Once you are breathing calmly, begin to mentally count the duration of the inhalation and the exhalation, matching one to the other. Most people are comfortable with a 6-count, breathing in for six and breathing out for six. This is only a suggestions as you can count whatever rhythm is natural for your breath and your body. It’s important to remain focused and mindful while you practice; you don’t want to fill your lungs like a big birthday balloon or extend your exhalation further than your body is comfortable with, because your body will automatically go into survival mode and grasp for the next inhalation…we do kind of need that oxygen after all! Instead, think of your breathing as a circle, creating a seamless transition that allows the inhalation to connect to the exhalation in a smooth gentle circle.
- Continue practicing this technique, and if you do nothing else today, do two simple things: inhale and exhale, you powerful being!
Peace & Happy New Year!