"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath." ~Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika
"Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God." ~Krishnamacharya
"For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth." ~Sanskrit Proverb
"What can we do but keep on breathing in and out, modest and willing, and in our places?" ~Mary Oliver
Next time you're in a yoga class, try counting the number of times the teacher says the words "breath," "breathe," or "breathing." On second thought, that might be a bit distracting. Take my word for it -- those words are used A LOT. According to subtle yoga anatomy, it's the breath that moves the prana -- or energy -- in the body. Breath and attention are the ways in which we move lifeforce through our bodies. If that sounds a bit too out there for you, no worries. You don't have to necessarily concern yourself with nadis or prana or bandhas -- you only have to feel in your body how changing your breathing makes you feel.
What Is Your Breath Telling You?
Stop what you're doing right now and tune into your breath. Feel the air in your nostrils and follow it as it flows through your body. Is your breath deep or shallow, fast or slow? Is your breath flowing freely or is it getting stuck somewhere? Notice without judging what you discover. Instead, get curious about it. It could go something like this: "Hmmmm...I notice that I feel a constriction in my chest and it feels hard to breathe." Spend a few minutes doing this (I'll wait...)
Breathing with Intention
All finished? Are you surprised by what you noticed? Now try changing your breathing to see how that feels. If you noticed you're breathing shallowly, then breathe deeply (relax your belly and let it fill). If you're breathing quickly, slow it down (inhale and exhale for a count of 6 or more). In the example I mentioned above, I would take some slow breaths in which the air rises all the way to my chest (without forcing) and visualize the breath loosening the knots. Try this for a few minutes (again, I'll wait...)
Do you feel differently from when you started? Perhaps you're an esteemed yogi with lots of experience under his/her belt and just skimmed over this exercise because you're been there, done that. If so, I dare you to go back and try it (yep, I'm going with a little psychology here to get you to do it). Being conscious of your breath is important -- it doesn't matter whether you're a yoga pro or someone who's never tried yoga before. Regardless of your yoga skill level, it's important to take some breath consciousness breaks during your day (no, don't save all of your conscious breathing for yoga class!). Being aware of your breathing habits and making changes can lift your energy in the middle of the day better than coffee, help you deal with cravings, reduce pain, relax before a nerve-wracking presentation/interview/conversation, slow down and become less reactive (at work, in a relationship, while driving a car), and help you unwind enough to stop your mind from racing and fall asleep.
The Breath Will Cure What Ails You
We breathe all day long, so perhaps we take it for granted. Yoga classes have to fit into a certain time slot and people often get cranky if they don't get enough of an asana workout, so conscious breathing (or Pranayama as it's known in the yoga world) is often absent from class. It's such a shame because, while asana is great, the breath is king. Or at least, that's my humble belief. I've made the journey from being all about asana to having a daily pranayama practice and let me tell you -- I'm way happier now than I was then.
Carve Out Time for Pranayama
Here's a little challenge for you -- cut down your asana practice by 10 minutes and spend that time practicing pranayama. I don't care if you simply sit for 10 minutes and do only deep breathing -- just spend the time breathing consciously. If, after a week, you don't notice any differences then by all means, go back to your extra 10 minutes of asana. Rather than get complicated with my pranayama, I often keep it simple. Because pranayama is powerful stuff, it's best to learn from a teacher. Here are some simple breathing practices you can incorporate into your day and jumpstart a daily pranayama practice:
- Block your right nostril and inhale and exhale -- SLOWLY -- through your left.
- Sit in a comfortable position and do Humming Breath. If you'd like a video instruction for this breath, click here.
- Get on all fours. Inhale here. Exhale to a count of 4 while slowly coming back to rest in Child's pose (by the time your exhale is complete you should be in full Child's pose). Gradually increase the exhale count (by one) to 8. Repeat the 8 exhale count 5-10 times. This is perfect to do before bed.
- Try the Kundalini Bliss Breath -- Inhale through puckered lips and exhale through the mouth. Continue for 3-5 minutes to start.
- The standard balancing breath is Alternate Nostril Breathing. It's recommended everywhere for a reason -- because it's wonderful.
- Also from the Kundalini tradition -- inhale in 4 even sniffs through the nose and exhale in four even sniffs through the nose.
- This one is a little more advanced -- block the right nostril and do a slow-paced breath of fire through the left nostril for 1-3 minutes. Go slowly with this one and stop if you start feel lightheaded or dizzy.
- Sit with your elbows at your side bent so your forearms and hands are out in front of you (at a 45 degree angle) parallel with the ground. Your left palm faces down and your right palm faces up. Inhale in 8 sniffs through the nose. On each sniff, alternate moving the palms up and down. Exhale in 8 sniffs through the nose using the same arm movements. [example: sniff, one palm comes up, sniff that palm comes down while the other palm comes up and so on]. Continue for 3-5 minutes and finish with 1-3 minutes of deep breathing.
- Inhale and hold the inhale for as long as you comfortably can then exhale. Hold the exhale breath out for as long as you comfortably can and then inhale. Complete 7 inhales and exhales.
- 3-6-9 breath -- inhale for the count of 3, hold for a count of 6, exhale for a count of 9. Don't force this one. It might take a while to build up to this ratio.
- 50 rounds of Kapalabhati (start with 15 and build up to 25).
- Block your left nostril and breathe through your right nostril only. Do this for 3-5 minutes.
- You can do this one seated or standing -- inhale and gently raise your chin up. Exhale with a HA (get loud if you feel like it) as you bring your chin back to it's regular level position. Do this 10-12 times.
These are simple breathing patterns, but go slowly and listen to your body so you don't push too hard.
Pranayama -- Yep, There's an App for That!
If you prefer the guided breathing experience and have an iPhone, an iPod Touch, or an iPad, I highly recommend the Pranayama application from Saagara. You can click here to get a free version of this app from the iTunes store. In addition to offering a number of set beginner, intermediate, and advanced practices, you can also create your own. The breaths are cued with the sound of your choice (vedic, classical, ambient) and if you get the paid version you can keep a log of your breathing practice so you can continue to raise your skill level. My favorite thing about this application is the visual -- you can choose to see the anatomy of the breath as it's being practiced. It's perfect for beginners or anatomy geeks like me who like to see the breathing apparatus in action. I have my own established pranayama practice that I like to do every day but I've also added an additional practice that I do with my iPod because I like this application so much.
My fervent hope for you is that you try one of these pranayama practices and fall in love with the power of your breath just as I did. Your body, mind, and emotions will thank you. It's just a myth that you need chocolate, wine, junk food and caffeine to get through the day -- all you need is your breath.