I remember reading an article as a teen about "learning how to breathe." At the time I didn't get it... wasn't I already breathing? Weren't we all? But now it all makes sense. Actually, learning to watch your breath, and also working with it through pranayama, or breath exercises, can change your mood, your day, your life.
This summer I’ve been teaching more teen meditation and yoga. Together we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on our breath as a foundation for both practices. Like scientists, we experiment with how changing the breath can change how we feel. Below are a couple of great pranayama, or breathing exercises, to introduce to teens.
Sitali (cooling breath) - This is a summer essential! With little kids I call this “air conditioner breath” since by practicing we can cool our bodies down from the inside-out as if we have our own air-conditioners. For teens I call it...Sitali. There are two ways to practice.
If you are able to curl your tongue like a straw you can start by exhaling all the air out of your lungs, then breathing in through your curled tongue straw. Immediately you’ll feel how cool the air is on the tongue, entering the body. Then we exhale through a relaxed, open mouth. Not everyone is able to curl their tongue however, and you can also practice by bringing the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth. Breathing in, allow the mouth to open slightly, keeping the tongue in place, and feel the cool air slurping in the corners of your mouth, cooling the body. We’ve practiced a lot of sitali breath this summer since its been so hot. It's worth trying off the mat, too, on subway platforms and hot sidewalks.
Alternate Nostril Breath - This is a very balancing breath and a lot of teens have remarked how different and calm they feel after practicing even for a few minutes. It's also just fun, and new, to breathe through one nostril at a time.
Again start by emptying the air out of your lungs. Then breathe in evenly with both nostrils. Then use the thumb of your right hand to block off the right nostril, exhaling out the left. Follow by breathing in the left, then blocking the left nostril with your ring finger and exhaling out the right. Alternate in this way for several rounds. You can also practice with breath retention, holding the breath in between sides, blocking off both nostrils. Try breathing through left and right with an even count. We often work with a count of four or five.
Take Five Breath - After finding our straight and tall meditation posture, we close our eyes and begin to tune in to the natural rhythm of our breathing. We notice where we feel the breath in the body, maybe in the rising and falling of the chest, or in the nostrils. We then begin to elongate the inhales and exhales, taking both in counts of five. This is a very calming practice and so helpful off the mat, any time anxiety or stress really flares up. It's interesting to notice how impatience can arise in this practice, too! Sometimes five seconds seems so long. But if we can be patient this is a transformative way to use awareness.