Take a Deep Breath
It has become widely recognized that deep, intentional breath can be a tool to positively influence our mental and physical well-being. That being said, it is interesting how often we forget to breathe! As we begin to incorporate intentional pauses into our life-- pauses in which we take a few deep breaths-- we will more often remember to turn to this useful tool.
The Yogic term for intentional breathwork is “Pranayama.” Prana, in Sanskrit, means “breath” or “life force.” How interesting that the “breath” is interchangeable with” life force” in this sacred language! “Yama” means to guide into expansion, extension or constraint-- in short, to consciously control.
It is not just the Yogic tradition that recognizes Prana, this life-force energy that runs through us all. The Mayans, Chinese, and Hindi all recognize that the free flow of Pranic energy is essential to a life of health and happiness, and each of these traditions had practices for working with Prana.
Prana is life. It is what animates the body, and what departs at the moment of death. When Prana is flowing and aligned, we find that our lives are in the flow as well. We manifest. When working with affirmations or manifestations, it is crucial that our life force matches the sincerity of our intention--just like a prayer would be ineffective if you didn’t have a connection to Source! When our prana energy is flowing, we are able to manifest our intentions and synchronicities happen. We are in the flow and can navigate the twists and turns that inevitably arise. Joseph Campbell, in the Power of Myth, explains that when we are following our bliss, we feel as if invisible hands are helping us along our path.
This Pranic energy moves through our body in channels, called “nadis.” Ancient texts say there are 72,000 nadis in the human body. The Sanskrit word nadi derives from the root nad, which means "flow," "motion," or "vibration." The nature of nadis is this flow, finding the path of least resistance and nourishing everything in its path. When this system flows freely, we are vital and healthy; when it becomes weak or congested, we struggle with poor mental and physical health.
There is one big, central nadi running from the base of the spine to the crown of our head, which passes through each of the seven chakras. It is called the Sushumna, “most gracious,” nadi and it is the channel for kundalini energy. Spiraling around the Sushumna nadi, in a double helix (the shape of our dna) are the Ida and Pingala nadis. The Ida nadi is feminine, nurturing, introspective and receptive. The Pingala nadi is masculine, manifesting, active and vital. These masculine and feminine nadis cross each other at each of the main chakras, and they also cross the Sushumna nadi at our Third Eye Chakra. Bringing the Ida and Pingala into equilibrium, thereby allowing the free flow of Prana, is a major focus of Hatha yoga.
Breath is essential for life. Oxygen is the most vital nutrient in our bodies - essential for the brain, nerves, muscles and internal organs. We could live for days without food and water, however without oxygen, a few short minutes is fatal. Our breath is also connected to and affected by our emotions. If we experience anger, fear, hatred or jealousy, our breath can become faster and more shallow. By employing techniques like “pausing” and “taking a deep breath” we can change our mood, how we experience a situation and our subsequent reactions.
Pranayama is the practice of using our breath to inform our experience. Different styles of Yogic breathing have different intentions-- for example, to increase lung capacity or to massage the internal organs. Belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, to calm the mind and body. Chest breathing opens the heart. Pranayama can be practiced seated and independent from physical postures, or linked with the postures in our yoga flow.
Let’s look at a handful of types of Pranayama which you could incorporate in your practice!
Belly Breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the mind and body. In an easy seat, place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. As you breathe in and out, feel your belly expand, but try not to move your chest.
Three Part Breathing (Dirga Pranayama) is relaxing and helps ease insomnia, anxiety, and stress. It calms the mind. Dirga Pranayama is called the Three-Part Breath because you are actively breathing into three parts of your abdomen. In an easy seat, place one hand on your upper chest and one on your belly. Breath in and out through your nose, starting in the low belly (on top of or just below the belly button), then moving to the low chest (lower half of the rib cage), and finally to the low throat (just above the top of the sternum). Then exhale in reverse order, deflating the low throat, moving to the low chest, and finishing in the low belly.
Breath of fire (Kapalbhati) is used in Bikram classes. It builds heat in the organs to aid in detoxification. (This is the same as “skull shining breath” except in breath of fire the exhale is longer, and the inhale is passive and just happens on it’s own.) In an easy seat… inhale through your nose, then exhale all the air out. Again, inhale gently through your nose, then vigorously pump your exhale out through your nose while pulling your navel in repeatedly and in short spurts. Then inhale and exhale one time normally before trying again.
Ujjayi Breath (breath of victory) is used frequently in Hatha yoga classes to build heat and energy in the body. It assists practitioners to be present in the moment. In an easy seat, inhale and exhale through the nose with a slight constriction in the back of the throat. This breath will be slightly audible, sounding a bit like the ocean. You can imagine the action of fogging up a mirror. Ujjayi breath sends air into the bottom lobes of the lungs where efficiency and oxygen transfer is the greatest.
Lion’s breath encourages a sudden release, and invites a little playfulness into the practice. In an easy seat, inhale deeply through your nose, then lean your head back and open your mouth very wide, exhale loudly while sticking your tongue out. Try practicing this while raising your arms up on the inhale and forming cactus arms with your exhale for maximum effect.
Bellows Breath is invigorating, wakes you up, and releases frustrations. Raise your hands up to the sky with the fingers splayed out wide. Inhale through your nose and with every exhale, drop your elbows into your side body and make a "HA" sound from the bottom of your diaphragm.
Kumbhaka Breath focuses on the space between the inhales and exhales-- a brief suspension of breath. There is a natural pause between breaths when we breathe normally, but it’s often so quick that we don’t notice it. When we breathe slowly and take long pauses at the top of and between breaths, we can quiet the mind. This trains the body and mind to stay relaxed even under stress and helps us notice thought patterns and emotions, while reducing distraction.
This week, get curious about your breath. Notice when you might be holding your breath and how that affects your body. If you notice being stressed-out or worried, experiment with intentional breathing and observe if it enables you to “let go” and relax. Remember, you can take your breath with you everywhere you go.
* (For further reading, check out “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell, “The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization” by Stephen Sturgess and “The Yoga Mind” by Rina Jakubowicz. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)