Any of you who have been to one of my classes would know that I looooove talking about the breath!
Whether it is releasing breath through the muscles in my yoga class, or following the in and out breath in a mindful meditation class, you can be sure that breath is a key part of my message to you.
Because for me, the breath is what unlocks your potential.
That's because it is intense! If you don't pay attention to your breath, you can be opening yourself up to a world of pain in the form of increased stress and anxiety, increased risk for cardiovascular issues, poor sleep, and the possibility of damaging relationships by not thinking clearly.
Not only that, daily breathing practice can bring you into the present moment, allowing you to think clearly and calmly about whatever is at hand, releasing emotional baggage that is preventing you from moving forward constructively, and bringing a deep appreciation for the very moment you find yourself in - no strings attached! This is how your potential can be unlocked through your breath. You can become a better, healthier, and more balanced person, simply by becoming conscious of your breath.
With all of our rushing around the place trying to compensate for the past or prepare for the future, how often do we just sit in the present moment, being aware of our breath and of the moment we find ourselves in?
In yogic philosophy, the breath connects to your prana - life force. Breathing techniques - pranayama - are employed alongside physical poses - asana - taking breathing from an autonomic (automatic) process to a conscious process. Attention is constantly paid to the quality of the breath, because the quality of the breath can indicate the quality of the mind.
On a practical level, the quality of the breath can be seen in the way someone breathes. Is the breath coming rapidly and concentrated in the upper chest? Or is it longer, slower and deeper, allowing the abdomen to move in and out?
Consciously directing the breath means that a person can move from a fight-or-flight response to the relaxed, rest and digest response. I have talked a little about this in previous posts here and here.
The benefits of moving away from the fight-or-flight response to the rest-and-digest response are huge.
The rest-and-digest mode is seen through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Once activated, the flow of oxygen and blood are altered. Here are a few benefits that result from this:
- decreased consumption of oxygen - increased relaxation
- decreased heart rate - increased relaxation, less work for the heart, lowers risk of heart disease
- decreased blood pressure - reduced risk for stroke, less strain on heart
- increased theta wave amplitude - boosts immune system, reduced anxiety, activation of healing mechanisms
- improved digestion
- experience of heightened alertness and energy.
(Jerath, Edry, Barnes, & Jerath, 2006)
So what are some tips to help me get in touch with my breath?
There are so many ways for you to get in touch with your breath. Here I share 3 simple and effective breathing tips that you can begin today.
I teach yoga and meditation in corporate settings and usually one of the first things I ask people to do in class is to stretch out their breathing apparatus - yep, that's right, breathing apparatus. The neck, chest and rib muscles are part of what helps you to breathe. If these muscles are tight and shortened, you can be sure that your breathing will also be tight and shortened.
Many people enter my class after sitting at their desk all morning working on stressful and tiring projects. They know it is a good idea to stretch, but it doesn't always happen when in the midst of a heavy workload. Often, my class is the first time in the day where they can sit down, switch off from work, and actually breathe.
So a few simple stretches can go a loooong way to loosening those breathing muscles.
- A simple neck stretch: Let your head drop to the right side and bring your right hand to sit gently on the side of your head. There is no need to put pressure on the neck, just let the weight of your hand help the neck muscles to lengthen slowly. Hold it there for 30 seconds, then do the other side.
- Stretch the chest muscles and activate the upper back muscles: Clasp your hands behind your back, roll your shoulders back, and squeeze the shoulder blades together. Hold it there for up to a minute.
- Lengthen and stretch the side ribs: Clasp the hands together, turn them out and bring your arms over your head. Stretch up through your arms, but keep your shoulders pressing down away from your ears. Keep the feeling of reaching upwards with your arms and bend your body over to one side. Be careful not to collapse into your waist here. Keep pressing upwards and outwards with your ribs. Come back to centre and do the other side.
2. Just breathe!
You might think this one is a bit of a no-brainer, but let me ask you, how often do you stop and notice your breath? Twice a day? Daily? Weekly? Ever?
Most of us go about our lives without ever thinking about our breathing, to our own detriment.
What I want you to do is really simple:
---> Just close your eyes and become aware of your breath. Notice it's quality as it enters and exits your body. Don't try and change it. Just follow it in and out, in and out. As you tune into your breath, start to recognise the four parts of the breath that run in a continuous cycle:
- the inhale
- the tiny pause after the inhale
- the exhale
- the tiny pause after the exhale
- and so on, the cycle continues.
I promise you, just checking in and doing this once or twice a day is a fantastic first step to becoming more aware of your breath. Incorporate it into your routine so it becomes habitual. In the morning after you wake up, splash your face with cold water to make sure you're fully awake, then sit down and take 5 minutes of breath awareness. In the evenings when you get home from work, do the same thing. Splash your face with cold water to wash away the day. Then sit down and take 5 minutes of breath awareness.
That's it. All you need to do is bring 10 minutes of conscious breathing into your day and you will notice a difference!
3. Count your breath
As you become more aware of your breathing, you can begin to add a count into your relaxation practice. Counting is a great way to avoid getting distracted.
You can also notice the quality of your breath by seeing the length of breath you can inhale and exhale comfortably. What you will probably find is that, with practice, it will be easier for you to lengthen your inhale and exhale. This can indicate a more relaxed state.
Try this simple counting method:
- Exhale all of your air
- Inhale for a count of four
- Notice the slight pause between the in and out breaths
- Exhale for a count of six
- Notice the slight pause between the in and out breaths
Often a 4 to 6 count is a good start, but if it is too much, just shorten the count to 3 to 5. Once you can do this count comfortably, start adding more counts to both the inhale and exhale.
If, at any time, you feel yourself straining or uncomfortable, you've gone too far. Straining can bring on the stress response - the opposite of what we're striving for here! Just dial it back to a shorter count. No need to get ahead of yourself, there will be plenty of time to lengthen the breath with practice.
So, there are 3 simple ways to calm down and unlock your potential using the breath. Give them a go and let me know what you think!
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Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V., 2006, 'Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system', Medical Hypotheses, Vol 67, Iss 3, pp 566-571.