Why Breathing Isn't As Easy As It Seems (And How To Do It With Intention)
People tell me all the time that they "did some breathing." While it's true that the breath is a simple key to stress management, the way we use the breath to accomplish this is rather diverse and more complex than meets initial presupposition. I like to think of the breath as tool and toolbox.
Who are you?
I have given several workshops on the breath in yoga, and I believe there is great benefit to first uncovering who you are as a breather. Do you hold your breath? Do you gasp, grasp for air, keep your shoulders up at your ears? Is your breathing shallow? Are you a mouth breather? Are you ever breathless? Do you inflate the chest before the abdomen when you inhale? You kind of have to undo before you start to redo.
A few breathing basics:
We use the nose to breathe, although releasing with an AHHH through the mouth can be relaxing
Not breathing isn't the same as consciously suspending the breath, which is known as kumbhaka. If you're someone who forgets to breathe, focus on exhaling before you go for a tempo with more holding in it. The above ahh breath is a great yoga therapy remedy, and here's a great way to practice:
- The inhale (puraka) is stimulating, and the exhale (rechaka) is relaxing. So if you are already revved up, basically taking in a deep breath is not going to calm you down. If you focused on lengthening the exhale though, it might. If you are a little groggy, then you might focus on a fuller inhale, and then a briefer exhale.
- The breath is to be respected; after all, it is the life force, so if you're a puller or a pusher with your breath, try to not try and just let your breath be, focus on the essential natural breath before you add any struggle to your nervous system.
- Your breathing practice should always meet you where you are. For example, you might need a cooling practice if you're a menopausal woman, and a heating practice if you lack energy.
An invitation for breathing with balance:
This is a great technique to explore all the phases of the breath, called Samavritti (saw-ma-vree-tee), the even breath, and it's one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.
1. To begin, sit, spine straight, shoulders and jaw relaxed. Close your eyes from top to bottom.
2. Get to know your inhale, by taking a few easy ones, and find a count that is possible to maintain without effort.
3. Continue inhaling to that count, adding a pause of equal length
4. After the pause, exhale to the same count, adding a pause after the exhale that is the same as count as the other phases.
It may feel a little like the waltz of breathing, in that it's almost square. Remember to keep your breath steady, and comfortable, as light and easy as possible. Continue for a few minutes, then let the breath be natural again, without count. Open the eyes slowly from bottom to top, feeling balanced, calm.
In determining who you are, and what you need, you can breathe with intention and purpose and as a result, find natural and portable inner peacefulness that will sustain you on and off the yoga mat.