‘Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.’ – Thích Nhat Hanh
When I’m teaching I encourage my yogis to consciously breathe. It sounds silly, because of course we are always breathing, but often we are unaware that we are not breathing fully or freely. I see how people take short shallow breaths or hold their breath during difficult postures and I have no doubt that this is repeated outside of class in everyday life too.
But if you’ve never been made aware of your breathing patterns – how you breathe, where your breath is restricted, the length and quality of your breath – then why would you know any different? And if you’ve never felt how liberating it feels to breathe deeply, how would you know what you’re missing?
In the West we often associate Yoga with Asana (the physical postures), forgetting that Pranayama (breathwork) is another one of the eight limbs of the practice. The word Pranayama consists of two parts. Prana, which is translated as ‘life force’ or ‘life energy’, is the vitality which flows through us keeping us alive. Ayama means to ‘expand’ or ‘extend’. So when put together, Pranayama describes the practice of influencing the flow of energy in the body through influencing the flow of our breath. And the result of this practice can significantly benefit our physical and emotional wellbeing through influencing the state of our body and mind.
This is particularly relevant in today’s world where we are constantly on the go. When we are stressed or anxious, the sympathetic nervous system is activated which stimulates the fight-or-flight response; a state which was historically there to release energy in our bodies to allow us to either fight or run away from predators. In this state, hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin are released, speeding up the heart rate and sending blood flow to the brain and the major skeletal muscle groups, giving the body a burst of energy in readiness for fight or flight. And in turn, energy is taken away from other bodily functions such as digestion and reproduction.
The problem is that this acute stress response, which was previously activated only in times of danger, is in today’s world a common state. We live in an always-on society where our stress response is constantly activated by our hectic schedules, demanding jobs, chaotic car or tube journeys and constant stimulation from the various forms of media that surround us. The more the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) is active, the more its patterns are wired into place and eventually it becomes our default mode. The more hyper-aroused our nervous system, the higher our nervous system set-point, and the more difficulty we’ll have finding balance and calm.
That’s were conscious breathing comes in. When we regulate our breathing by making it slower and deeper we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). As Bo Forbes describes in her book Yoga for Emotional Balance, the parasympathetic nervous system acts a ‘dimmer switch’ and turns down the fight-or-flight response, taking the body into a more calm and relaxed state. This allows the body to rest-and-digest, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and diverting blood supply towards other functions such as the digestive and reproductive systems. The more we use this ‘dimmer switch’ over time, the more we can change our nervous system’s set point to cultivate emotional balance, allowing us to more easily access a sense of deep, inner calm.
With this in mind, here are just a few of the positive effects that conscious breathing can have on the body and mind:
1. Relieving stress and anxiety
Due to its positive influence of the body’s nervous system, conscious breathing can increase resilience to stress and reduce feelings of anxiety. It can also be a valuable tool for lowering our emotional reactivity and cultivating emotional balance. Breathwork can be used at work or in the car to relieve stress, at home to enable us to be a less emotionally reactive parent or partner and at night if we’re experiencing insomnia.
2. Relieving depression
A study from Boston University which was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that taking a yoga classes twice a week helped to ease depression, due in part to deep breathing. Dr Chris Streeter, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, associated this benefit with the positive effect that yoga and deep breathing has on the nervous system, stating ‘If your autonomic nervous system is balanced out, then the rest of the brain works better’ [source: Time.com].
3. Bringing physical release
Conscious breathing also can bring a sense of physical release. After taking a deep full inhalation, we can evoke a sense of letting go of physical tension through the release of the breath and the expulsion of any negativity in the process. During class I encourage my yogis to focus on deepening their breath during the Asana practice so to find a sense of ease within the posture. As Mukunda Stiles says in his translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras ‘Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life.’ [Ch. II, v. 47 & 53] Equally breathwork is a key practice in Pregnancy Yoga in preparation for the birth, where deep regulated breathing helps to cultivate a sense of rhythm during labour and release tension as contractions come and go.
4. Cultivating present moment awareness
Conscious breathing is also a useful tool to quieten the mind and find clarity of thought. If we focus our attention on the breath we are brought into the present moment, rather than being distracted by random thoughts which clutter the mind. The mind then starts to quieten, and with this stillness there comes a greater sense of clarity, balance and peace.
There are many simple techniques that you can use to focus your awareness on your breath and you don’t need to be in a specific place or have lots of time. You could simply start by observing the natural rhythm of your breath and the air coming in and out through your nostrils. Or you could focus on the area of your body where you feel or hear your breath. You could also visualise the breath traveling through your body or start to focus on extending the length of the inhalation and the exhalation. By breathing consciously – by noticing and observing the patterns and quality of the breath - the mind can start to let go of other distracting thoughts and simply be in the present.
Experience how good it feels to breathe!
Here’s a Pranayama practice that you can try for yourself. It’s one of the most accessible practices and it is called Three-Part Breath, or Dirgha Pranayama.
1. Sit in Sukhasana (with crossed legs) on a block or blanket. Root down with your sitting bones and lengthen through the crown of your head so that you feel that you’re sitting up tall. Relax your shoulders. Alternatively, you can lie on your mat or on the floor, either with your knees bent and your feet planted, or with the legs extended on the ground. Allow your body to relax. You can close your eyes or keep them open.
2. Place your hands over your navel and without force or strain take a slow deep breath into your tummy. Feel the tummy rise and inflate as you inhale, and fall and deflate as you exhale. Practice this for five breaths.
3. Move your hands to your rib cage. Feel the ribs expand as you inhale and retract as you exhale. Practice this for five breaths.
4. Place your hands below your collarbone, at the centre of your chest and inhale. Feel the chest rise and spread as you inhale and withdraw as you exhale. Practice this for five breaths.
5. Once you are familiar with this practice you can try this without using your hands and guide the inhalation through each of the three areas in turn – from tummy, to ribs, to chest – and then after a pause allow the exhalation to flow in the reverse direction – from chest, to ribs, to tummy. Practice that for five to ten rounds and then increase the repetitions if it feels comfortable.
6. Whilst practicing this, notice where the breath flows easily. Equally, notice if the breath is restricted in any of the three areas. See if you can breathe more fully into any restricted areas so there is a sense of expanding and deepening the breath with evenness so that the breath flows equally through all three parts.
7. Upon completion, allow yourself time to sit or lie and absorb the benefits of the practice. Notice any sensations in the body. Notice how your mind and body are feeling.
8. From day to day, you might observe how the quality of your breath, and your experience of the practice, might change and differ. Some days you might feel fully focused on the practice, whilst other days the mind might be busy with other thoughts. Notice if the mind is distracted, and without judgement, gently direct your attention back to your breath. It’s normal to have off days where the mind starts to wander, so don’t get frustrated or be hard on yourself!