When life goes sideways on you, it's helpful to remember that one of the most powerful tools we have to affect many layers of our health is already happening within us.
When my kids were little and a moment would get overly chaotic, one of my standby directives for all of us was, “let’s take some deep breaths.” These days, it’s often my teenagers reminding me to breathe. Our breath holds an incredible capacity to affect not only how we feel, but also the deeper physiology of our body.
As a lifelong student and then teacher of health and wellness, breath has always been a central component to my practice. I have learned many forms of breathing, as each movement practice has its own breath directives. Our breath can help us stabilize our core, it can provide a focal point for our attention, and it can be harnessed to bring healing to all of our cells.
We all have the ability to use breath as a remedy for issues we have, both in our minds and in our bodies. The benefits of attending to our breath, and incorporating specific patterns of breathing, has far reaching effects on our health and well-being. One of the most ancient forms of breath practice is Pranayama. Originating in ancient India, it is a yogic practice that focuses on the control of breath, and has a litany of benefits associated with it, from increasing oxygenation of cells, improving energy, and reducing anxiety to name a few.
There are three aspects of Pranayama that are fairly easy to access and have immediate benefits:
- Diaphragmatic breathing. Known as Dirgha, this type of breathing involves using the full respiratory system. Many of us, especially when stressed, have a tendency to use our mouths to breath. Mouth breathing activates our sympathetic- or fight/flight- response. This practice involves gently closing the mouth, and inhaling and exhaling through the nose, filling the lungs by focusing on allowing the belly to expand first, then expanding the breath upwards slowly and fully. As you exhale through your nose, finish by gently squeezing through the belly, expelling any leftover air from the bottom of the lobes of your lungs. This type of breathing helps to fully oxygenate your body and helps to release stored toxins. It also stimulates the vagus nerve, which allows our nervous system to relax and restore.
- Ocean Sounding breath. In yoga, this breath is called Ujjayi, and it is achieved by gently closing the glottis in the back of your throat as you inhale and exhale through the nose. Both the inhale and the exhale are lengthened, with a longer exhale stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. When I am moving through an asana practice, incorporating Ujjayi breathing brings my full attention to the present moment, increasing the meditative aspect of my practice.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing. Called Nadi Shodhana, this practice involves bringing air into the body using one nostril at a time. Start by using the right thumb to close of the right nostril, inhaling through the left nostril. At the top of the inhale, hold and release the right nostril, closing off the left nostril with your right ring finger. Exhale through your right nostril and inhale through your right nostril. Release the right nostril and exhale and inhale through your left nostril. Repeat the sequence, exhaling and inhaling through one nostril and then switching to the other side. The power of this breath is in the calming effect it has. For years I have used it when I wake up in the night and can’t go back to sleep. It settles me down and gives me a place to focus other than my racing mind.
We are bombarded with so many promises of external ways to create health in our bodies that it’s easy to forget the immense power we have already within us. Harnessing the power of our breath is a simple way we can all begin to settle ourselves, create a more balanced and calm reality, and create change that extends well beyond us.