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And breathe...

“When the breath wanders, the mind is also unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life,” Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Breathing is something we do without thinking. But a lot of us aren’t doing it properly and it’s having an adverse affect on our health.

Ancient yogis knew about the power of the breath, and now modern research and science agrees. Heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, digestion, hormone secretion, and even our mental and emotional states all can be controlled, regulated, and healed through proper breathing practices.

So what is proper breathing?

First of all, we should be breathing through our noses, not our mouths. That’s the way our bodies were designed. It’s been said that breathing through your mouth is about as practical as trying to eat through your nose. The nose hairs filter, humidify and warm or cool the air before it enters the lungs. They also protect our bodies against about 20 billion particles of foreign matter every day.

When we breathe through our noses, we stimulate the lower lung, which is rich with the parasympathetic nerve receptors associated with calming the body. It’s only through nose breathing that we are able to breathe all the way down into our bellies, which is where the diaphragm is. The diaphragm is our breathing muscle. When this is used, it massages the stomach resulting in better digestion. Crucially, it also stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps to lower the heart rate.

When you breathe through your mouth, you tend to breathe up in the chest. The breath is shorter and sharper and this triggers sympathetic nerve receptors resulting in the fight or flight stress response. Breathing this way can lead to high blood pressure, insomnia and even some forms of cancer.




In yoga, we practice what is called conscious breath, where we focus on the breath through the asana practice. Doing this means the control of the breath shifts from the brain stem (where the brain tells the lungs to breathe automatically) to the cerebral cortex. And it’s this focus on the breath that allows the magic to happen – our minds become quieter and calm arises. Emotional stress and random thoughts become less prevalent. Prana, or energy, can start to flow more freely, pushing through any emotional or physical blockages and “freeing” the body and mind. This is what illicits that “feel good” factor after class.

PRANAYAMA

Yoga breath practices, or pranayama, is one of the eight limbs in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path to enlightenment. They are powerful tools because they allow you to self regulate. When you need soothing, you can use calming breath practices. When you need uplifting or energizing, you can use stimulating breath practices.

Calming breath practices:

  • Exhalation lengthening. I do these often in class. Simply inhale to a count of four and then exhale to a count of six.

  • Exhalation pausing. Consciously lengthening the pause after your exhale for a couple of seconds. This pausing should be a soft suspension of your breath, not a gripped holding as you might do holding your breath under water.

  • Buzzing Bee Breath (Bhramari Pranayama). Inhale through your nose, then keeping your mouth closed, make a low humming or buzzing sound in your throat as you exhale. Sense the vibration in your throat and skull as you breathe. Start with 16 rounds and work up to two to three minutes.

Balancing breath practices:

  • Equal breath (Sama Vritti). Inhale to a count of four and exhale to a count of four. I normally suggest my students do this throughout their practice.

  • Three part breathing. Inhale all the way down to the belly, then breathe in a bit more into the chest, then a bit more into the collar bone and do the reverse on the exhale.

  • Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Sodhana). This breath is said to bring the two energy channels, the ida and the pingala into balance, as well as the two hemispheres of the brain. Bring your right hand up to your face, placing your pointer finger and third finger onto your forehead. With your thumb, gently seal the right nostril and take a big inhale through the left. Then seal the left nostril with your ring finger and pinky and release the right nostril, and exhale right. Inhale right, exhale left – that’s one full round. Do at least six rounds and really focus on the air coming in through the nostril and coming back out the other.

Energising breath practice:

  • Skull shining breath (Kapalabhati Pranayama). This is recommended to make you more present and alert, with a sharper mind. It’s a stimulating breath that can wake you up if you’re feeling sleepy and energise you when you’re feeling sluggish. Place one hand on top of the other in the space on the belly between the belly button and your pubis. Take two normal breaths. Inhale to 60% then inhale and exhale, short and sharp making the exhale explosive through the nose. Do about 30 then exhale, inhale and hold your breath for as long as you can. Slowly exhale. Breathe normally.

“The exhalation empties the brain and pacifies the ego, bringing it to quiescent humility,” says B.K.S. Iyengar in his brilliant book Light on Life. “When you empty the brain you also empty the toxins of memory. With an exhalation you let go of resentment, anger, envy and rancor… We abandon all those stored up impurities that cling to the self – our resentments, angers, regrets, desires, envies, frustrations, and feelings of superiority and inadequacy.”

OTHER BREATH PRACTICES

I am becoming increasingly interested in other forms of breath practice. I can’t pretend to know much about them as I haven’t studied them but from what I understand they work with the subtle bodies. The idea being that we hold a lot of emotional trauma in our bodies and often don’t work it out, but using breath techniques we can shift that trauma and release it. It’s not just that Dutchman doing it in the ice, there are many others. Wim Hoff does have some free YouTube tutorials you can try out on his website - they are excellent. Others practitioners worth checking out are Daisy Ellison @daisyellison and James Dowler @breathewithjames. These breath practices are quite trippy but they have been my go-to during lockdown and I have found them to be truly transformative.

Breathing properly can improve your sleep, your anxiety levels and your health. And the good news is it’s never too late to correct your breathing. Once the body is healthy, nourished and calm through proper breath work, it can soar to its full potential.

So get cracking. Simply notice when you’re breathing through your mouth and try to keep breathing through your nose throughout the day. Try one of the above pranayamas every now and then too. We have the potential to heal ourselves and improve our performance in any area of life, and it’s all right there, under our noses.

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