Dr. Andrew Weil once said, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.” Why is oxygen so vital? Often times the importance of something is more clearly defined in it’s absence. Though we can do without food for weeks and possibly water for days, without adequate oxygen supply, we will die within in a few minutes. We can see this in acute cases such as a heart attack or a stroke. The blockage of oxygen delivery causes, many times, irreversible damage.
So what is happening in our bodies daily when we are breathing quickly and shallowly? While the result is not as extreme as a heart attack or a stroke there are still a significant series of “little deaths” occurring in the body. We may experience these as feelings of mental sluggishness, lack of energy, decreased creativity and heightened states of negativity. It is no wonder that the practice of yoga, steeped in ancient tradition, dedicates a whole limb to teach individuals how to breathe.
The yoga practice broadly accepts and directs it’s practitioners to focus on breath control. The entire 4th limb of yoga, called Pranayama, is dedicated to managing, directing and controlling breath.
Pranayama is the combination of observing and controlling the breath to create a desired response in the body. Prana – refers to a life force energy and exists in all living matter. Yama – is the active process of observation. Have you ever noticed when you are standing next to the ocean how the air feels alive. Or the elated feeling you receive from being near a friend or family member you love. Breathing in and out we draw in energy particles as well as oxygen. Vinyasa yoga is based upon the premise that moving the body in conjunction with the breath causes a deeper merging of the energy bodies and the physical body. Literally, a marriage of physiology and pranic exchange occurs with intentful body and breath alignment.
Pranayama includes four parts: 1. Inhale 2. Exhale 3. Space at the top of the inhale 4. Space at the bottom of the exhale. In regular daily breathing patterns we, typically, do not focus on the space between the inhale and exhale, which are the key parts which distinguish a Pranayama practice from regular daily breathing.
One of the best ways to breathe, to cause long term health, is to breathe “baby normal”, originating the breath from the bottom of the belly. Many times, due to habit, we breathe from our chest and miss the opportunity to provide adequate oxygen supply to the rest of the body because of our shallow breathing. Try this now. Place your hands on your belly. As you inhale let your belly expand like a balloon. At the top of your inhale and the beginning of your exhale let the belly begin to deflate. As the belly deflates actively pull the navel towards the back side of the spine. Do this ten times with the hands on the belly. After you have completed your tenth time remove your hands and now focus on steadying the breath so the length of the inhale matches the exhale.
It has been said that the mind follows on the coat tails of the breath. Steady breath equals a steady mind. Practice is the true teacher. Let your own experience guide you. I recommend starting a breathing practice with the initial aim to breathe from the belly and then focus on aligning the breathe to an even pace. Start this exercise, practicing 5 minutes a day- working up to 15 minutes a day. Listed below are more detailed exercises.
Breathing Practice: The 3:3:3-(or Relaxing Breath) Exercise This exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. You will be inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
• Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of three. • Hold your breath for a count of three. • Exhale completely through nose for count of three. • Repeat cycle
This exercise is a natural sedative for the nervous system. Though the exercise is subtle and will not hit you like a sedative, it gains in power with repetition and practice. Practice two times a day for five minutes. Create a daily habit with this practice.