The Best Gift: the Gift of Breath

picture of gifts

It's that time of year again when gift-giving abounds. People open their hearts - and their wallets - and give more generously. Giving gifts is a material way for us to demonstrate our love and there's nothing wrong with expressing love. We can, however, go overboard with the material stuff - but that's another discussion.

The biggest and best gift in my life has been the gift of yoga. Had my friend Marnie not suggested to me, back when I was 29, to check out yoga this journey may not have happened.

Providence has its way, as I've learned. 

Yoga is too big of a topic to broach here, so I'd like to focus more on breath. Breath is something we don't think much about, unless of course we are congested, suffering from an allergic reaction, or out of it because of strenuous activity.

On average we breathe 15 times per minute, 21,600 times per day. Most of this breathing is involuntary, the breath moving as it relates to physical and mental activity. However when we start to explore breath work in yoga we quickly realize how much we can use the science of the breath to radically transform our lives. 

Many of us lead hectic lives and inadvertently find ourselves breathing in a shallow manner. This is a natural reaction to our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight part) being over tasked. This breathing becomes deeply rooted and causes all sorts of imbalances both physically and mentally.  

On a physical level, when the sympathetic nervous system is wound up it draws the circulation into the limbs away from the organs. This results in weak and improper digestion and elimination physically and an agitated mind mentally. Irregular sleep patterns may develop, focus and attention may be reduced, and irritability may set in. 

It is clear that most of us in our busy modern-day lives are deficient in relaxation. Relaxation is related to the para-sympathetic nervous system - its rest and digest function. While not all physical yoga is para-sympathetic, we do want to get into this part of the autonomic nervous system more.

How do we access the para-sympathetic nervous system?  By consciously working with the breath. There is a science to the breath that yogis figured out thousands of years ago. Much of our modern science is slowly figuring it out, but not so well. Even many yoga instructors and teachers have little understanding of this science. 

The breath moves in cycles from the left to the right nostril throughout the day. This relates to the solar and lunar energies within us, the right and left sides, the Ha and Tha of Hatha yoga. When we are imbalanced this flow is uneven or disrupted which has negative implications. This science of breath and the polarities is fascinating, but having some basic understanding of the breath will be more helpful.

Here are the basics on breathing. This is my gift to you! 

  1. The abdomen is the location for accessing the para-sympathetic nervous system. We often introduce new students of yoga to three-part breathing. This involves laying on their back, slowing drawing the breath into the belly only, letting it rise up like a balloon, then a slow releasing exhalation. This is repeated a number of times until the student is comfortable and any tension in the belly has been released (some of us hold tension in the abdomen).

    The second step involves filling the abdomen then drawing the breath into the chest. The exhalation is released from the chest first with the abdomen second. Another few rounds here help the student to understand filling the breath from the abdomen upwards.

    Finally, the student fills the abdomen, the chest, then all the way up to the collar bones in a steady, full and balanced manner. The exhalation begins from the upper chest downward. 

    Using this technique, the student immediately experiences the potency of their breath and is usually shocked at how much they can control its flow while in a relaxed state. They also feel how incredibly healing this breath is. 

    Sadly, there are not many classes where you will find this breath technique taught as there are not a lot of introduction to yoga classes out there; people just dive right into asana classes without much of the basics ever being explored.  Please do it on your own to reap its benefits.

  2. Longer exhalations are deeply releasing. We consciously lengthen the exhalation to twice that of the inhalation achieve this effect. The words "letting go" are used a lot in yoga; longer exhalations are the means to do this. They are used in forward bends which is a category of pose whose energetics are releasing, calming, grounding, unwinding and "letting go". 

    Working with this type of breath should not be forced or rushed. It can be comfortably introduced in savasana (final relaxation/corpse pose) quite readily. 

  3. Most of us have imbalances in our breath, which incidentally reflect our mental landscape. They are: 1) emotional breathing, where it is uneven, 2) irregular breathing, where either the exhalation or inhalation is favoured, and 3) gasping, where the breath is too loud.

    We consciously move the breath in a balanced way to work through these patterns. Ujjayi breathing is engaged: the throat is gently contracted to better control the flow of breath, creating a soft internal ocean sound (it should not be loud). The ratio of the breath to address imbalances is 1:1, equal inhalations and exhalations.

    Another alternative to address imbalances is Circular or Pure breathing. Here we work with the breath to have it flow in a circular pattern with no breaks or pauses; the inhalation flowing into the exhalation and the exhalation back into the inhalation. The more relaxed one is the easier this breath flows. 

    Circular breathing can be combined with Ujjayi and either/both could be done before physical practice, during practice and after practice leading into meditation. 

  4. Chest-focused breathing is also used for specific effects. It is much more expansive and usually the default breath in asana, except forward folds and twists. Backbends and lateral postures engage this type of breathing spontaneously. It is also used to achieve the specific energetic effect of building and vitality. There must be balance used when teaching this way otherwise the classes/poses become too stimulating. If there is not an ease and comfort in asana it means we are simply doing exercise, not yoga. 

    Much of the flowing and more active styles of physical yoga result in this type of breathing and are therefore more oriented to the sympathetic nervous system. There is a tendency for these classes to feel great while doing them and even afterwards, but for many of us with somewhat depleted adrenals, they are not a balanced approach to physical yoga.  People are drawn to these types of classes because, as Ayurveda teaches, we are drawn to things that perpetuate our imbalances. 

  5. The last thing that I will mention is kumbhaka (retention). This is the pranayama that Patanjali is referring to in the Yoga Sutra, not fancy breath techniques. When we start to consciously allow for retention at the top of the inhalation and bottom of the exhalation we are working very scientifically with breath and pranayama. This should only be done when studying with a teacher who has mastered retentions and can teach them safely. Please contact me if you have questions.

Over years of practice, as the body and mind become more purified, we can more efficiently work with the breath. It does take time, but its power if truly amazing. We can, quite literally, begin to change our lives through changing how we breath - not just on the yoga mat, but in our daily lives. With more control over the breath, we have more control over our mind, rather than being at its mercy. The goal of yoga, and self mastery, is to get past the stuff of the mind. 

Yoga psychotherapy helps us to use the breath in our healing. It is clear how breathing is related to the states of the body and mind. Reflecting on our activities and mental states show us how the breath is related to these. A surprise creates a gasp in the breath; anxiety creates short, shallow and fast breathing; depression brings on slow and laboured breathing that is broken with long pauses. 

When the mind and body are in a state of calmness and contentment (some of the goals of yoga) the breath is smooth, relaxed and even, without jerks or pauses. We work with the breath consciously to change it, to move it in this direction so that we can arrive at and rest in these states more often. 

During the holidays season as we get caught up in the festivities and gift-giving, remember to take a moment to breathe and know how precious each breath is for it  gives us the gift of life. 

Happy holidays to you and yours!

Om Shanti!



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