Breathing is, indeed, good for you. It’s been shown that breathing into the belly helps encourage a relaxed state in your body, nourishes your organs, calms the nervous system, and oxygenates the blood. It’s easy: just breathe.
Has anyone ever told you to do that when you are upset or anxious? Breathing deeply isn’t always that simple. “Just breathe” is the yogic equivalent to telling someone to take a chill pill. Urban Dictionary defines “chill pill” this way:
"while not truly a "pill" it is a comment used by one party to let another party know that everyone else in the room but them knows they are acting like a complete a**hole."
[You know what happens when you tell Bruce Banner to take a chill pill? He turns into the Incredible Hulk.]
I’ve had an anxiety disorder since I was a teenager, and the only result that the advice to “just breathe” has ever gotten me is turning me from anxious to angry. Anxiety can create tightness in the abdomen, so that sought-after belly breath feels impossible, and the pressure to relax quickly can create even more stress and frustration.
Luckily, of course, there’s yoga. The physical asana postures we use in a yoga practice help release tension in the body and create more space for the breath. I’ve often thought of my asana practice as one long pranayama, or breath exercise. I can’t always breathe deeply through sheer will alone, but I can connect my breath with physical movements and encourage my belly to let my breath back in.
“Prana” is Sanskrit for breath, and “yama” means restraint, so “pranayama” is often translated as “breath control.” However, the word has a tricky Sanskrit “a” right in the middle of it, which sometimes means “not,” or the opposite of the word to which it is attached. If we take the “a” that way, we get a practice that frees the breath from restraints.
There are many ways of practicing pranayama, and asana yoga isn’t usually one of them, but I’ve always found it to be the best way of getting back home to my breath. In a previous post, I talked about Leslie Kaminoff’s definition of breath as nothing other than a change in shape inside the body. The lungs, ribs, diaphragm, and abdominal cavity all have some mobility, and the breath is fundamentally a movement, even if it appears to be very small.
Through simple vinyasas, or movements connected with breath, we can explore the natural rhythms of our inhales and exhales, and free our breath from physical constraints. Here are two simple vinyasas you can try at home:
Come onto your hands and knees on a yoga mat, carpet, or blanket so your knees are comfortable. Hands are spread under the shoulders, knees right underneath the hips. Feet are stable and active. You are moving your spine in this vinyasa, but your arms and legs stay steady underneath you.
As you inhale, open the front of your body: lift the crown of your head and your tailbone towards the ceiling while your belly button stretches towards the floor. Think of lengthening the skin from your chin to your pubic bone, rather than dropping or collapsing into the lower back.
As you exhale, curl the forehead and tailbone in towards each other like you are trying to see your belly button. Spread the space between your shoulder blades, and push all the stale air out of your lungs by squeezing your abdominals gently.
Repeat 5-10 times, with your eyes closed if you like. When you are finished, sit quietly for a moment, breathe naturally, and notice how you feel.
Half Sun Salutations
Energetically, inhales have an upward energy: they are uplifting, expansive, and energizing. Exhales have a downward energy: they are about releasing and grounding. This exercise explores these two breath directions.
As you inhale, reach your arms wide and up towards the sky.
As you exhale, fold all the way down towards the earth, hands wide or palms together. Hinge from your hips and keep a bend in your knees to protect your lower back.
Inhale all the way back up again, then exhale your hands together at your heart.
Rinse and repeat as needed, at least three times.
Once you get the hang of it, imagine your breath is a dance partner in the lead. Allow the inhale to begin just a millisecond before you move, and do the same with your exhale. Notice how that makes you feel.
Our yoga practice is always about mindfulness and awareness. Exploring how our breath and movement are connected and can talk to each other can really teach us something. So the next time you get upset and someone tells you to “just breathe,” walk away, find a quiet place, and try these two vinyasas instead. Alternatively, tell them to take a chill pill, since you’ve got yours covered.