“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…” – Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Recently, some friends asked me to teach a weekly yoga class. Of course I jumped at the opportunity. Teaching yoga is a great way to spend time with friends (it’s wondrously introspection inducing) and I knew that teaching would greatly improve my own yoga practice (which, after only 2 weeks, it has!). One of the most important aspects of yoga is pranayama: the conscious regulation of the breath.
We are in a hurry so much of the time, always trying to get to the next place or working on crossing things off of our lists. In addition, our need for physical activity is reduced because of modern technology and automation. Our breathing patterns mimic our life patterns and we can develop unhealthy breathing habits without being aware of it.
When we’re stressed, our breath tends to be fast and shallow. In response to various tensions, we hunch our bodies, slouch, or curl into balls, and over time, our breathing becomes habitually restricted. Breathing consciously can help open our chests, improving our posture and our stress levels.
“Several researchers have reported that pranayama techniques are beneficial in treating a range of stress related disorders, improving autonomic functions, relieving symptoms of asthma, and reducing signs of oxidative stress. Practitioners report that the practice of pranayama develops a steady mind, strong will-power, and sound judgement, and also claim that sustained pranayama practice extends life and enhances perception.” – Wikipedia
The ultimate aim of pranayama is to focus the mind, leading towards personal reintegration. When you practice pranayama, you are deliberately changing your normal breathing patterns. The change in breathing patterns changes your state of mind and reduces the mental disturbances. As a result, your thoughts become clearer and your understanding of yourself is enhanced. As your mind becomes more fully absorbed in the observation of the breathing process, the character of the breath tends to change involuntarily. In other words, your breath changes simply by you becoming aware of it.
Some of the benefits of pranayama include:
- Better focus and concentration
- Increased lung capacity
- Better emotional control
- Stress reduction
- Reducing insomnia
If you’ve never done any breathing exercises before, here is an easy way to start:
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Sitting is recommended so that you don’t fall asleep.
- Become conscious of your breath. Don’t try and regulate it. Simply remain aware of the quality of the breath – the inhale, exhale, and the pauses between the two. Don’t try and change anything… merely focus on the present nature of your breath.
- After several minutes, start breathing in and out through your nose. Breathe into the stomach and then out from the stomach. Try to make the exhalations longer than the inhalations.
- Now try inhaling first into the chest and then into the lower stomach. Then exhale and fully remove the air first from your stomach and then from you chest. Remove all the air that can comfortably be expelled from the lungs before inhaling again.
A fun visual component to add to the exercise is to imagine all of your unwanted emotions being pushed through a fire in your belly. The breath helps to push the unwanted emotions through the fire and expel the residue.
“According to the yoga texts, ‘fire’ (agni) exists inside our bodies near the navel. The impurities settle below that, in the abdominal area called apana. This fire burns impurities, and our breath affects the quality of the flame. Furthermore, breath regulates the flow of impurities toward the fire for burning, and away from it in order to leave the body.” – A.G. Mohan, Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind – A Guide to Personal Reintegration
Like anything, when we practice something consciously, the body begins to memorize the activity and we integrate it into our unconscious selves. Try sitting up straighter, or walking taller and see how that affects the state of your breath, your mind, and consequently, your life.
Have any of you experimented with breath/breathing techniques? What have you experienced (positive or negative)?
“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.” – Buddhist Proverb