Of the many elements that help to comprise a yoga practice – physical postures, breathing, mantra, visualization and meditation – it is arguable that yogic breathing is the most profound. Breath links us to the deepest parts of ourselves, and is indeed the foundation of our life. As we leave the comfort of our mother’s womb, the doctor’s slap on the back forces us to take our first gasp of breath – a single breath that has enough force to reverse our blood flow and start us down our path in the unknown, outside world.
In the yogic tradition, breathing techniques are referred to as pranayama. Prana translates into breath – but it is far more than that. Similar to the Chinese term Chi, prana is not only our breath, but our life force. It is all that underpins our actual existence. It encompasses our circulation, metabolism, digestion and the more undefinable energetic force that underlies all of our actions. The word yama translates into control. Pranayama is our conscious way of directing and focusing that life force energy in the body.
One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far to see how our breathing affects us in daily life. If you think back to a time in which you were shocked, you may have found that you held your breath -- or maybe when anxious, your breath became shallow and rapid. If we are depressed we often sigh aloud, trying to release the oppressive energy within us. Breath is the seat of our emotion.
When we are under stress and our emotions run amok, it often creates the “fight or flight” response in the body, firing up our sympathetic nervous system. We produce adrenaline, our hormones go haywire – essentially we gear up for a fight. The problem is, many of us walk around in this state of anxiety and tension all day – without ever letting go of “the fight”. Yogic breathing can shift us back into balance. A simple long, deep breath can do wonders – stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, or what is known as the “relaxation response” in the body. Learning how to control the breath is key in stress relief.
The next time you find yourself stressed or anxious, try experimenting with these simple pranayama:
Left nostril breathing: Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair. Block off your right nostril with your thumb and breathe long and deep through your left nostril for 1-3 minutes. This helps to slow down the mind and body, and is also great for insomnia.
Anti-anxiety breathing: Sit comfortably or lie down on your back. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through a rounded mouth. Then inhale through a rounded mouth (as though you are sipping through a straw) and exhale through your nose. Continue for three minutes.
Try to become very present with your breath as you practice these two pranayama exercises. As you become more attuned to the subtleties in your breath, you can see how you can affect both your physical and mental well being with your breath.