Yoga is about bringing the mind to a place of stillness and calm, enabling us to see things clearly, as they really are. Freeing our mind of distractions and disturbances has the mind in a state of joyfulness and serenity. This is a ‘state of mind’ we want to hold on to, even when experiencing adverse conditions. Do you know people that can do this? Those who are calm and in control while their world is falling apart around them. Amongst adversity they remain undisturbed because they have a calm state of mind.
How can we achieve this for ourselves? The answer begins with the breath. The involuntary action that invites us to life, and when ceased invites us to death. Through out this blog we will look at the why the breath is so influential and a couple of breathing exercises to try on your own. Let’s begin.
Take a moment now to observe your breath, a practice called mindful breathing.
Breathe through the nose and become aware of the breath. Notice that you are breathing. No need to change the breath in any way. Notice how the breath moves in and out of the body. Notice the rhythm. Where does the breath begin and where does it end? Notice whether it is smooth or not, long or short, notice if the torso expands or contracts when you inhale and exhale. When your mind wanders, just notice it has wandered and gently bring your attention back to focus on your breath. Inhale and exhale over and over again for five minutes.
Give yourself love for spending time with your breath.
What is with the Breath?
We take 8.5 million breaths every year, and for the majority, taken without conscious thought. Regardless of when or how we breathe the purpose of each breath is the same, cellular respiration. Every cell in the body needs to breathe; takes up oxygen, burns fuel, generates energy and releases carbon dioxide. With each inhalation new life is delivered to our body and with every exhalation we cleanse the body. Enter oxygen and exit carbon dioxide. The wonderful thing about the breathing process is we can take this involuntary action and, with consciousness, make it voluntary. We can spend time with the breath and direct it in whichever way we like. We can control how we breathe. We can choose to breathe fast, slow, deep or shallow, through one nostril or two. By changing the way we breathe we can change the way breathing affects our body.
Yogis in the East have known for a very long time the breath is the key to unlocking the body’s potential. After many research projects, using Tibetan monks as their subject, doctors and scientists in the West now agree that a regular deep breathing practice can be of benefit. In particular you can
Reduce anxiety levels and depression
Lower/stabilize blood pressure
Increase energy levels
Aid in muscle relaxation
Decrease feelings of stress and overwhelm
The way we breathe has a dramatic effect on our wellbeing and by spending a few minutes a day practicing breathing exercises can improve our health and state of mind.
The reasons why this can happen are due to the link between stress reduction and focusing on the breath. Let’s take a glance at what happens to our body during the day. Our autonomic nervous system controls our main organs and consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They function in conjunction, sending messages through the nerves from the brain down the spine to the rest of the body. Relaxation is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and stress with the sympathetic nervous system. Generally when activity is high in one system it is lower in the other. Of course! Hence the inability to be relaxed while experiencing stress.
What can we do?
When we focus on one thing, such as the breath and make an attempt to let go of thoughts as they enter the mind we are initiating what Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, cardiologist, author and founder of the Mind/Body Institute calls The Relaxation Response. As soon as our body is in this relaxed state it has the ability to heal itself. For thousands of year’s yogi’s have known and practiced what Dr. Benson is bringing to our, the western world’s attention. Yoga as a whole practice is centered on this thought of living in the present moment, using the breath as the point to start with. Go ahead; read more about Dr. Benson.
Playing with Pranayama?
In yoga we use the word pranayama to describe breathing exercises. The word prana is Sanskrit for life force and yama can be translated as expansion or control. The life force is the breath; hence pranayama is the control of the breath. Yogi’s consider the breath to be the bridge between the mind and the body, leading to the spirit. Uniting these three, through the breath, creates wholeness. When we are whole we have everything we need and we are on the path to experiencing the blissful state of Samadhi.
"While we practice conscious breathing, our thinking will slow down, and we can give ourselves a real rest.
Most of the time, we think too much, and mindful breathing helps us to be calm, relaxed and peaceful.
It helps us stop thinking so much and stop being possessed by sorrows of the past and worries about the future.
It enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment."
- Thich Nhat Hanh
I invite you to take a breath – a real breath!
Here are three breathing exercises you can try for yourself, all a little bit different though with the same outcome; creating balance and calm with in the mind and body. Maybe find a friend who can guide you along with the instruction and laugh with. There is always laughing when you first try some of these.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing (Full Belly Breath)
This is a beautiful pranayama to put you to sleep or create the calm feelings through out the body and mind. Focus on the breath for 5 minutes or until you are a satisfied you are relaxed.
Try for Yourself:
Lay down with your eyes closed. Breath through the nose, observe your natural breath for a minute or until you feel settled. Place one hand on the abdomen, one on the chest. As you breath in through the nose feel the breath expand the chest and belly. Feel the ribcage expand outwards and the collarbones rise upwards. Pause for a moment at the top of the inhalation. On the exhalation feel your belly drawing back toward the spine and the pelvic floor drawing up. At the end of the exhalation contract your stomach muscles to push out the residual air in the lungs. Repeat the inhalation and exhalation over and over gently increasing the length of the breath as it feels natural.
2. Nadi Sodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
When you are feeling ungrounded or a bit out of balance Nadi Sodhana. Also known as nerve purification breath, nadi sodhana pranayama is practiced to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, our feminine and masculine qualities. Targeting the central nervous system it creates calm and focus to the mind, reduces stress and anxiety, increases vitality and leads us into meditation. Nadi means a channel for the breath and sodhana means purifying. The benefits of a cleansing pranayama are a mind free of restless thoughts and all round sense of calm. Begin the practice by completing six rounds. One round is like this.
Try for Yourself:
Sit comfortably with an erect spine, the hands resting gently in the lap or on the knees and gently allow the eyes to close. Spend a few moments or minutes observing the breath. Bring the right hand towards the face, drawing the elbow towards the midline of the body. Gently press the right nostril with the thumb, and inhale naturally, comfortably and consciously through the left nostril. Block the left nostril with the ring finger, release the thumb and exhale gently out of the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, block the right, open the left nostril and exhale on the left. Inhale through the left nostril. This is one round of nadi sodhana repeat for another five rounds. Think of the breath as if you are sipping air through a straw. It helps during the inhalations to have a partial block with the finger or thumb nestled at the point of the nose where the cartilage meets the soft spot. After you’ve finished the rounds, place the hands gently in the lap or on the knees, and quietly observe the natural breath for a minute or so. Thank yourself for taking some time out from your day to practice pranayama. Notice the effects of the practice on the body, breath and mind.
And gently open the eyes.
3. Bhramari Pranayama (Buzzing Bee)
Bhramari means a large black bee. During the exhalation of this practice you will be humming a soft sound like the murmuring of bees. Why get our buzz on?
Bhramari is thought to be therapeutic for insomnia and pregnancy and helpful for those with busy minds and chronic pain. When practicing bhramari you will naturally lengthen the exhalation, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the body to de-stress. The audible sound of the humming has few benefits. Focusing on the sound brings us into the present moment and draws our attention further to one point. The sound can drown out the thoughts of the mind and create vibrations for the baby in utero.
Try for Yourself:
Sit comfortably. Raise the arms ready to place the fingers in the ears. Choose which fingers would be most comfortable. During the practice we will keep the elbows in line with the shoulders, the shoulders down and relaxed and the eyes closed. Place the fingers in the ears. Inhale through the nose and as you exhale make a humming sound, similar to that of a bee buzzing. Bring the vibration of the hhmmm into the skull. Practice this for a couple of minutes. Are you ready? Eyes closed, elbows up, fingers in, inhale and exhale the hhmm…
Donna Zaffino was born to be upside down, enjoying her view of life from a different perspective to most. As a gymnast she understood her body’s kinaesthesia from a young age. This passion for body movement transferred into a Bachelor of Physical Health and Education and a Diploma of Education at The University of Western Australia. Yoga and meditation was a natural choice when confronted with the isolation of living remote. Her inquiry into yoga was great enough for Donna to study and be accredited within the ISHTA system and Yoga Australia. Within the last five years this practice has transformed her daily life from surviving to thriving.
Let her share more at The Roofless Shala and follow her on instagram @throoflessshala