Whether in yoga asana, meditation, or pranayama practices, breathing can play a powerful role in reducing stress, providing invigorating energy, fortifying concentration skills, and most importantly, allowing our awareness to bring us to the present. Physically, breath awareness and breathing exercises have a preventative capacity: improving lung capacity, strengthening cardiorespiratory function, providing more oxygen to the cells of the body and decreasing sympathethic drive/increasing parasympathetic responses, thus relieving stress by quieting the nervous system. The latter lends itself to the quieting of the mind and the stress release that comes from stilling the mind by giving it a “one-pointed focus.” Equally breath awareness is effective in restorative ways too, in all three areas of yogic interest: physically, emotionally and spiritually. Again, this is due to the one-pointed direction of our awareness when we focus our mind on our breath.
Breathing usually is an involuntary response, and dictated by cells that react to blood gas levels. Sometimes, there is an overdrive of that mechanism with regard to emotion driving the breath response. This is also involuntary. Typically we live with shallow breathing, in the anterior lobe of the lungs, with a sitting/stooping/haunched posture that constricts the lungs, and affects posture, mood, and outlook. On average, a human breathes 21,000+ breaths/day. Cardiovascular, digestive and elimination processes of the body are for the most part involuntary too. But of all the involuntary processes, breathing is the only one that can be affected voluntarily. We can take poor breathing habits and improve the quality of our breath, thus improving the quality of our life.
Consider the factors that effect breath in a negative way: stress, illness (both chronic and acute), prolonged sitting, tight muscles, poor cardio-respiratory capacity, pain, fear, insomnia, bad posture, … all of these influence links between body, mind and spirit. Many of these are connected to habits that exist outside our awareness. That is why a comprehensive yoga practice emphasizes improving the quality of breath by incorporating pranayamas, or breathing exercises and using them with the various limbs of the practice to include asana, meditation, concentration, and ultimately how we use yoga to evolve spiritually. It is the tuning in that begins with physical awareness and that then becomes a deeper learning of self and that understanding can help us in so many ways to live in a more meaningful and satisfied way. We can pay attention to transform irregular, jerky or harried breathing into smooth, deep, controlled breathing. This transforms to a more resilient respiratory system, a body energized with enhanced oxygen delivery, and overall better function of the systems of the body. In turn this translates to empowering us with clarity, patience, self control and confidence that comes from using pranayamas in yoga practices to build awareness.
Let’s learn to use the “box breath.” Sit comfortably on a yoga blanket, or meditation cushion in Sukhasana, with legs crossed and with support against the back body (sit against the wall). Rest the hands on the knees/thighs. Close your eyes and tune into your breath. Feel the “held tension” connected to your habits of how you hold yourself and with each exhalation, let go of these subtle tensions that do not serve you. All the while notice the deepening of your breath. Once you have maintained slow deep breathing for a few minutes, you have helped the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles between the ribs to stretch. They have “warmed up” to your breathing exercise. Then begin to add retention at the top of the breath and at the bottom of the breath. Use a rate of 1:1:1:1. Try counting to 4 in each place. As you become more proficient in deepening your breath, increase your count. Then begin to “notice what you notice” as your awareness skills become refined in a breathing exercise that becomes more and more familiar. One interesting aspect is what you notice once you have finished with the regulating of the 4 areas: inhalation, retention, exhalation, retention. What is the body inclined to do once that part of the pranayama is completed. Sit and observe the tendency of your body. What do you notice at this phase? Observe without judgment.
Learn to tap into this remarkable resource of breath awareness, at any time, as consciously regulating breath is always available to you. As with any other practice, consistency makes a great difference to maximizing on the many benefits!
Yoga poses for your breathing practices: Typically pranayamas are practiced while sitting in Sukhasana, “Happy” or “Easy “ pose. New students are taught Viloma I as a supported, reclined pranayama to learn how to tune into the various segments of the breath cycle, the qualities of breath, the building of retention, and of inner awareness. Ujaai is practiced during active asana poses, and helps to build stamina and resilience of the respiratory and muscular systems of the body. Want to learn more? Purchase your copy of Essential Yoga Practice here. And, consider taking our Essential Yoga Sangha two-week online course, to deepen your practice and learn more about how to use these pranayamas – our next course is July 2018. Follow our social media for dialy inspiration and chance to win in our monthly giveaways!
Aromatherapy suggestions for your breath awareness practices:
To eliminate airborne pathogens and allow the respiratory system a cleaner environment, consider using citrus oils, not only do they have antiviral properties, they are known to improve mood. Whether you choose to use a few drops on a cotton ball and place in a well ventilated area, or use a diffuser that will mist the essential oils more efficiently throughout a room, or create a blend with water in an atomizer, it is a wonderful way to decrease toxic load on the body’s most direct route to being affected by the environment: inhalation. In addition, consider using oils that boost memory, clarity and focus, in order to enhance the value to your breath work practice. Rosemary helps support memory and focus, peppermint and spearmint wake up the central nervous system, and, marjoram, chamomile and lavender calm the nervous system which counters stress. Keep in mind that the effect of certain aromas are unique to each of us considering the many factors in our own history. Experiment with essential oils and blends that are calming and uplifting. Along the way, these gifts of the earth, if they are pure an unadulterated, will all serve to bring the mind present, and therein lies the real value of using aromatherapy with breath work, the profound opportunity to grow and evolve that lies within our reach when we are set up to use the clarity that comes when are indeed present! Enjoy your practice - Namaste!