Breathing. Is there anything we do so often yet think about so little? Our breath is fundamental to our lives, but we only seem to notice it when something interrupts it, like a bad cold. Yet if we take a moment to notice our breath, we can learn a lot about ourselves, and even use it to calm and energize our thoughts and bodies.
Pranayama is the ancient yogic practice of breath awareness and control. As described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (circa 200 BC), pranayama involves lengthening and extending the breath by observing and analyzing inhalations, exhalations, and the pauses between the two. Formal pranayama requires years of daily practice with the supervision of a teacher, but some of its gifts are available to all of us at any time.
Breath awareness exercises and some simple breath patterns can quickly ground you and help bring you into the present moment, allowing worries and anxiety slip away. Try the following quick exercises at the office, waiting in line, or while stuck in a traffic jam. Suddenly everything that seemed overwhelming can melt away, leaving you refreshed and better able to face the rest of your day.
Sit comfortably in a chair using the backrest for lumbar support. Your feet should reach the floor. If not place a support under them, such as a phone book. Place your palms face up on your thighs. Lift your chest and roll your shoulders back. Hold the chest open, but do not strain. Above all, breath work requires a quiet and relaxed head and brain.
Breathe normally. Soften your eyes. Observe your normal breath. How high does it come up in your chest? Which is more calming, the inhalation or the exhalation? Do you naturally pause between the two?
Now allow your eyes to close, but don’t let your chest drop. Relax your jaw and allow the skin of the face to relax down towards the lift of your chest. Observe the length of your breaths. Are the inhalation and exhalation of the same duration? Breathe normally and observe for 10-20 breaths, or as long as you feel comfortable. Practice observing your breath at least once a day for a few days before continuing to the next exercise.
Altering the Breath
After becoming familiar with your breath for a few days, try some of these simple exercises to subtly alter your breathing. If you begin to feel anxious doing any breath exercise, you should stop immediately and just relax, and come back to it another day.
Start practicing breath awareness. Observe the length of the inhalation compared to the exhalation. When you are ready, begin the breath work at the end of an exhalation. Begin a new inhalation, and adjust your inhalation or exhalation, so that it is as long as the longer of the two. Ensure your jaw, face, shoulders, and abdomen are relaxed. Continue breathing and adjusting for ten cycles, then return to your normal, or automatic breath, relaxing completely.
Read about more breathing exercises for relaxation and stress relief in our next issue, Feb. 9th. Subscribe to our mailing list here.
- Rebecca Taggart
Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco yoga instructor.