Breathing is one of the central elements of yoga practice. It is also one of the easiest yoga teachings to bring “off the mat” and into daily life. In this final post of the year, I’d like to share some thoughts and practices that might help you weather any end-of-year stresses with more ease.
Firstly, why is breath so crucial? It is not that we need to breathe “correctly” or learn a lot of different breathing techniques. Breath is an entry point into further embodiment, rather than something to be mastered or controlled by the mind. In yoga, we often begin by learning to synchronise breath and movement, but that is only the starting point of the journey we can take into our breath. The breath can help us transform difficult situations and create powerful changes in our state of being, in the moment. It is closely linked to our psychological and emotional situation, and can help us reclaim our center when we are triggered. It can also help us become more sensitive to our actual feelings, and therefore gives us the power to be more authentic, less reactive and to move through difficult emotions with grace.
Here are some ways you can think of your breath, and practices that may help you explore it a little more deeply:
1. Breath of Life
Breathing connects us with our body and our life force. When we are able to breathe deeply and fully, we drop out of the churning of our thoughts. By breathing with awareness, we can descend into the field of the body and feel the energy, or prana, circulating within us. In this way, breath is the bridge between our conscious mind and our deeper, embodied awareness. Making this connection can help us re-charge, center and self-stabilise.
The Practice: Deep Breathing
- Take a comfortable seated or lying down position, with legs and hips stable and spine long. You may wish to place your hands over your belly to help you connect there.
- Close your eyes, and slowly begin to come into your breath. Over the next few breaths, gently encourage your exhale to lengthen and deepen, and let your inhale follow.
- As you breathe, pay attention to the sensations involved in the breathing process, feeling them from inside the space of the body.
- On the exhale, you may notice the body becoming heavier, softer or more rooted. Let the jaw, shoulders and solar plexus relax. Feel the ribs drawing in and down, helping your energy move downward. Let go of any tension you feel anywhere in the body, allowing it to drain downwards into the earth underneath you.
- On the inhale, feel the body expand outward in all directions. Let the spine and head lengthen upwards, the chest rise and the belly fill. Let the inhale move through the back of the body as well as the front – the lower back, back ribs and back of the skull. Draw the breath in as a way of nourishing and reinvigorating your energy, bringing you back to life.
- Continue to breathe like this, attending to sensations and feelings in the body that the breath shows you, for as long as you need to feel more grounded.
2. Breathe for space
Breathing empowers us from within. We spend most of our lives disconnected from the breath, taking it for granted as something that just happens in the background. However, when we practice breathing consciously, we start to find our own strength and the power to transform ourselves and our situation. Instead of passively ‘being breathed’, we can actually start to breathe with attention and savour the feeling and rhythm of our breath.
The Practice: Ujjayi Breath
- This practice can be done seated, lying down, or on-the-move once you’ve learned it.
- To begin, open the mouth and let out a sigh, making a soft sound in the back of your throat as you do so. Do this a few times, letting the jaw, neck and mouth release and relax.
- As you sigh, feel the way the muscles at the back of the mouth and in the throat contract slightly. Then, close your mouth and replicate the same action in the throat, making the same soft, wave-like sound with each breath. Bring one hand to your chest, resting your index finger in the hollow between your collarbones, to help you focus.
- Give it a few breaths for you to get used to this, and then pay attention to maintaining this valve in the throat on both the inhale and the exhale. Notice that your breath will likely deepen and smooth out, and enhance this slightly by evening the length of the inhale and exhale.
- Once you are familiar with this breath, close your eyes and listen to the breath flowing in and out, like waves at the seashore. Stay connected to the feeling of the breath in the rest of the body, as in the first practice above. Feel the rhythm of your breath as the rhythm of your own life, and use this breath to create some space in your life and state of being whenever you need it.
Both of these practices are simple and accessible, but can create powerful change in just a short time. As with most other things, the more you do them, the more they’ll help and the more you’ll discover about yourself. They can be done in any situation, at any time — in the middle of a difficult conversation, when waiting in line to board a plane or stuck in traffic, when saying goodbye to loved ones, and, of course, as part of formal yoga or meditation practice.