In these uncertain times, it is important to find a constant. Something to anchor ourselves to and come back to when the events of our lives seem to be beyond our control. Breath is one such constant. A voluntary and involuntary bodily response. The process of inhalation and exhalation, controlled for us unconsciously by our brain, is necessary for life. That same breath can be manipulated consciously to serve us. Whether controlled consciously or unconsciously, the constant presence of our breath can be counted on every day and managed to give us comfort.
While many practice chest breathing, filling their lungs and upper chest with air, this type of breathing tends to be shallow in nature. The quality of the breath is limited. Think of chest breathing as a response to stress or anxiety; short, staccato and capable of providing basic respiration but limiting, nonetheless. Many of us have undoubtedly been chest breathing of late.
In contrast, diaphragmatic breathing is accomplished by filling the diaphragm and then the lung fields with air. This technique results in greater capacity and availability of oxygen. The quality of the breath is expansive. Think of diaphragmatic breathing as calming, restorative and capable of providing nearly unlimited space. That is the breath we want to incorporate in our daily lives and call upon to ground us.
Pranayama, the yogic method of breath control, literally translates as the extension of life force. The pranayama practice of consciously taking control over our breath and manipulating it to produce the quality, quantity and benefits of a more grounded consciousness is rejuvenating. It brings life-giving oxygen into our bodies, focused the mind and spirit, calms the nervous system, revitalizes the body and frees the mind.
Practicing mindfulness in breathing is one of the many methods of self-care we can turn to daily.
There are several breathing techniques available in the practice of yoga. All begin in the same place. Sama vritti, also known as harmonious breath, is the equal fluctuation of breath. Breathe in deeply through the nose and feel the stomach expand. At the top of the breath, hold it for a second or two. Exhale that breath through the nose at the same pace as the inhalation.
Pay special attention to the intercostal muscles, the muscle group surrounding the ribs. Loosening or tightening them will affect the ability to expand the breath and its overall quality. Yogic focus on diaphragmatic breathing centers the mind and body. Once this simple method of breath control is achieved, it is possible to explore additional forms of sympathetic breathing. Two are offered here.
Three part breath or Viloma breath, focuses the mind on the breath and can be used to further calm the mind. Start the breath, as before, drawing it in through the nose. Draw attention to the root chakra at the base of the spine. Inhale and feel the belly expand from the pelvis to the belly button. Hold. Inhale from the belly button to the lower ribs. Hold. Inhale from the lower ribs to the upper ribs. Hold. Exhale fully through the mouth. Continue this exercise twice more. Inhaling and pausing. Pulling the breath up through the body and expanding the breath. With each exhale through either the mouth or nose, expelling stale air, stagnant thoughts and limiting notions.
Nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, is the practice of alternately breathing through the left and right nostril. Used to balance the brain’s left and right hemispheres, it brings a centeredness to the mind. To begin, adopt the Mrigi Mudra, thumb and pinky extended and the remaining three fingers closed. Gently close off the right nostril with the right thumb, inhale through the left nostril, close it with the pinky and exhale through the right nostril. Now keeping the right nostril open, inhale, close it with the thumb and exhale through the left. This is one cycle. Repeat the cycle three times. A greater sense of focus with surely accompany this practice. Whenever the events of the day bring an unsettled feeling, turn to the one constant and life-giving staple of life – breath. Embrace yogic breathing. Focus and calm the mind. Let go of tension and limitations. Revitalize the spirit. Find peace. Namaste.