Wellness: Taking it One Breath at a Time

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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.

Breath Observation
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.

Comments (2)

  • anon

    Hey Rebecca Taggart,
    I enjoyed this article. I want to share some of my experiences after reading it and ask you a few questions about yoga and your practice of it. I have never practiced yoga before, although I have watched good looking people in spandex doing yoga on early morning TV.

    Can yoga help with weight loss? Does yoga conflict with mainstream religious beliefs? You wrote that formal pranayama takes years of daily practice; I was wondering how long you have been practicing and after how many years of practice did you become an instructor?

    I tried the breath observation exercise that you suggested. I found almost immediately that, under observation, it was a real challenge to relax and breathe in what seemed a natural rhythm. I went from am I breathing too fast to am I breathing too slow, am I pausing long enough or am I pausing too long, am I breathing too shallowly or too deeply. Breathing is much more demanding than I had ever realized!

    Shortly after I began to relax, I fell asleep! I woke up when my dog came up and nudged me; he seemed distraught at my odd behavior, so I gave him a treat and took him for a walk. I observed my dog as we walked and noted how he constantly pants as he breathes. He is a very happy and relaxed dog; it occurred to me that I should try to breathe like he does. I did this, trying to time my breaths with his. Well, very soon thereafter I became quite lightheaded and nearly fell down in the street. A woman in a passing couple opined loudly to her companion that it was a disgrace that people get drunk and go out in public. I was mortified!

    Is there any hope for me or should I give up breathing and try something else? Please let me know how you think I should proceed.

    Breathlessly awaiting your instructions,
    Tom Mawn

    Feb 02, 2010
  • anon

    The key to pranayama is to relax and allow your breath to move naturally. Do not try to practice pranayama while exercising, or moving in any way. It is fine to observe your breath while exercising, or at any other time, but conscious alteration of the breath should only occur when lying or sitting with the chest uplifted and all tension released. Enjoy!

    Feb 09, 2010


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