“By shifting our consciousness into the present, we are able to quieten down the chatter in our mind and invite stillness and balance into our entire being”
The first and most important thing we do when we are born into this world is to take our first breath. And then we go on breathing involuntarily for the rest of our lives. As we grow older, we come to learn that in order to stay alive, we must continue to breathe. As a young girl, one of my fondest memories was pretending to be a mermaid in my uncle’s pool. I would spend hours swimming around and trying to hold my breath underwater for as long as I could. My breath hold time got better but I always knew there would come a point where I would have to swim to the surface to inhale that life giving oxygen that, in all honesty, I really didn’t think that much about at all.
Breath is Life
We are all very aware that breathing is an exercise which is vital to our life and we know that if we stop breathing for a short time, we can experience brain damage and even death.
Breathing for most people is instinctual, it’s involuntary and it’s unconscious. But what happens when we start to focus on our breath? Take 30 seconds now to sit and take some long and deep inhales and exhales. Feel your lungs inflate as your abdomen and your chest rise and fall. Listen only to your breath and forget about everything else that is going on around you. Just for 30 seconds.
How do you feel?
Do you feel a little calmer than you may have 30 seconds ago? Do you feel a little more centred, possibly more balanced?
It’s incredible how just breathing in a conscious way can change our whole attitude in a matter of seconds.
The Breath in Today’s World
Many factors can affect our breathing patterns such as weather, pollution and respiratory disease but generally speaking, if we breathe in an effective way, our breath will be calm, steady and rhythmic. It will feel easy to breathe and we will be able to fill our lungs with enough air and be able to direct our breath down into our lower abdomen as well as our chest.
In today’s modern world however, many of us use only our chest for breathing without even realising it. We breathe shallow rather than deeply and we don’t make use of the full capacity of our lungs or our diaphragm. Afflictions such as stress, anxiety and fear, being overworked and overtired have encouraged us to form this habit for shallow breathing.
That’s where adopting breathing practices into your daily life can really help to change your state of mind as well as improve your overall health.
Pranayama – controlled and regulated breathing.
Prana – vital life force energy or in some instances – the breath.
Yama – control or restraint.
Pranayama is an important and essential part of yoga. By practicing pranayama, we are able to make use of the full capacity of our lungs, allowing more oxygen into not only our lungs but also our heart, brain and entire circulatory system.
There are a whole host of physiological and psychological benefits that come from a daily pranayama practice. Not only will it improve lung function but it will also tone and stimulate internal organs such as the kidneys. It will flush out built up toxins and release vital energy or prana back into our system. It can also quickly reduce stress, regulate moods, improve sleep patterns and improve concentration and focus.
We have the ability to control our breath through pranayama practice and use it to benefit our overall health, how awesome is that?!
Let’s take a look at one type of pranayama practice to get you started ~
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate nostril breathing) –
Nadi – channel.
Shodhana – cleansing, purifying.
This simple breathing technique balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It infuses the body with fresh oxygen and clears any built up toxins. It can help to reduce stress and anxiety with an overall calming effect. It helps to balance hormones, enhances concentration, eases respiratory allergies and clears the energy channels within our bodies (nadis).
- In a comfortable seated position, sit up tall and straight and relax the muscles of your face, neck and shoulders.
- Bring your left hand to Chin mudra with your thumb and index finger touching and palm facing upwards (the gesture of consciousness) and rest it on your left knee. Bring your right hand to Vishnu mudra with your index and middle fingers touching the base of your thumb and all other fingers erect (the gesture of universal balance).
- We will use our right hand in Vishnu mudra to open and close our nostrils as we breathe. Using the thumb for the right nostril and your ring finger for the left nostril.
- Inhale through both nostrils and then placing your thumb over your right nostril, exhale through your left nostril.
- With your thumb still closing your right nostril, inhale through your left nostril, then place your ring finger over your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through your right nostril and exhale through your left and you have then completed one round of Nadi Shodhana.
Continue this practice for several more rounds (3-10) to experience it effects and benefits. Keep your inhales and exhales controlled and even, you may want to count to 4 for each inhale and exhale to help you with this. Once you have finished, return to your normal breathing and take a few moments to notice how you are feeling.
Nadi Shodhana can be practiced at any time of the day and doesn’t have to be practiced in conjunction with your asana practice. Enjoy your time with this breath, it is also a great way to lead into a meditation.
Breath and Asana
“Yoga is as much a practice involving breath as it is involving the body. The quality of our breath is extremely important because it expresses our inner feelings. If we are in pain, it shows in our breathing. If we are distracted, we lose control of our breathing. The breath is the link between the inner and outer body. It is only by bringing body, breath and mind into unison that we realise the true quality of an asana.” ~ T. K. V. Desikachar
If you have ever attended a yoga class, then I’m sure you will have heard your teacher asking you to inhale and exhale with certain movements. But why is that exactly? Why is there so much emphasis put on our breath during an asana practice?
It’s true, focusing on the breath is absolutely vital to any asana practice. By breathing in a conscious way, we are able to be fully present in the moment, giving our full attention to not only the asana we are practicing but also to the state of our body and our mind. By shifting our consciousness into the present, we are able to quieten down the chatter in our mind and invite stillness and balance into our entire being.
As we move through the asanas, our breath should be deep and effortless and directed down into the lower abdomen. A good way to do this is to visualise the air that you inhale reaching down into the lowest parts of your lungs. Your chest and collarbone area will also rise with your inhale and this is fine and necessary but what you want to avoid is solely breathing into your chest. This will quickly tire out the muscles that support your upper body, create strain on your mind and body and limit the amount of fresh oxygen and energy entering your body.
The breath is also an effective indicator as to what is happening in our mind and body during our practice. For example, say we are practicing Warrior 2, we have settled into our pose and we are comfortable, our breath is happy and our mind and body is at ease. We then try to challenge ourselves further by widening our stance and bringing our front thigh more parallel to the ground. By doing this, our leg muscles have become strained and uncomfortable. All of a sudden our breath becomes uneven and a little forced, it is no longer deep and effortless as we try to make our body stay where it is.
In this instance, our breath is an immediate sign that we have pushed ourselves too far and we have lost our steadiness and ease (Sthira and Sukha) within our posture. It’s time to pull back and return to a state of stillness in rest and maybe try again another time.
Our breath not only supports our mind and body during our practice, it also helps to deepen the effects of the asana and helps us to move into and out of the asanas with ease.
A couple of things to remember –
- Inhale when opening the front body, eg – raising the arms overhead. This helps to provide more space for the lungs to inflate fully.
- Exhale when closing the front body, eg – forward fold. As we exhale, our diaphragm contracts and pulls inwards, by folding forward on the exhale, we are able to move with the action of the diaphragm making the asana easier to execute.
- Don’t move whilst holding your breath and only move on a suspended breath if it’s on the exhale, eg – cat cow. If we move whilst holding our breath, we stop the flow of energy or prana moving throughout our body and this is counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve in our practice.
The first step of a yoga practice is to consciously link breath and body. We do this by allowing every movement to be led by the breath as we practice the asanas ~ T. K. V. Desikachar.
The quality of our breath greatly affects the quality and length of our life. With a little conscious practice, we can become the master of our breath and enjoy the benefits. Take your time, be patient and kind with yourself and above all, have fun. We only get one life, let’s make it a great one!
Love Kat xx