Breath awareness is one of the most transformative and health-enhancing tools I’ve discovered through yoga practice. The benefits of healthy, relaxed breathing include: good energy levels, clearer thinking, a more relaxed body, and a calm, peaceful mind. Whether you practice yoga or not, here are some simple steps that anyone can take to better breathing and a more relaxed body and mind:
1) At random moments of your day, notice how you breathe.
Especially if you’re feeling rushed or under pressure, your breathing may be shallow. Pause and take an open, easy-feeling breath, and watch your reactions to the world around you change. You might find your shoulders relaxing, or your face softening, and you’ll immediately start to feel more relaxed and able to meet any challenges before you.
Do this often enough and you’ll become skilled at noticing straight away when your breathing patterns change in response to pressure. Change your breath and you’ll change your state of mind.
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves a long life. Therefore, one should learn to study the breath”. – Svatmarama, from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
2) Get into the habit of exhaling as completely as you can.
During daily life, you may find that feelings of being rushed are reflected by your breathing pattern, and you may be breathing in before you’ve really breathed out. Although we can never really exhale all the air out of our lungs, it’s important to take enough time to breathe out as much as possible. Not doing so can aggravate your nervous system, increasing anxiousness.
No amount of will power or effort to breathe deeply will cure shallow breathing – in fact, this kind of effort can just leave you feeling more tense and breathless. Instead, exhale as much as you can, then leaving an open invitation for the inhalation to just wander in whenever it wants…you’ll find that inhalation is richer, deeper, and more energising and expansive without any effort on your part. Practise this whenever you can. As Jan Baker says in “Yoga for Real People: A Year of Classes”:
“Our body removes 3% of its waste through the bowel, 7% through urine, 20% through our skin, and 70% by breathing.”
3) Support good breathing with good posture
A slumping body with rounded shoulders can’t breathe well. I know this sounds obvious, but haven’t we all found ourselves so caught up in what we’re reading or writing that some time goes by before we realise that our chests have gravitated toward our bellybuttons? We then become tired, unfocused and achey.
If you have to work at a desk, try setting up a chime on your computer, mobile, or an alarm clock that sounds every half hour. Ideally it would be somewhere away from your desk so that you have to get up to switch it off. Take the opportunity to stand tall and lengthen your spine, raising your arms over your head. When you have to sit, use a good chair that encourages you to sit tall, keeping the front and sides of your torso open. This will save your back, too!
As a daily routine, also try gentle lunges and front hip openers, side stretches, and shoulder openers, because stiffness or tension in any of these areas of the body can contribute to poor breathing habits.
Simple things like lying back over a rolled towel placed horizontally behind your shoulder blades, or a vertical blanket rolled into a long cylinder and placed under the whole length of the spine, are great for releasing tight muscles and re-creating a feeling of spaciousness and ease in body and breath. More on these easy techniques in future posts.
For now, a quote about breath from Timothy McCall, M.D.’s excellent book, “Yoga as Medicine“:
“In Sanskrit the word prana means both breath and life force. Bring awareness to your breath, yogic philosophy teaches, and you can calm the mind and get closer to the source of wisdom inside you, the calm inner witness that some people call spirit”.
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