How to breathe health and vitality into our lives

Most of us don’t breathe correctly.  Nor do we realise we haven’t breathed fully or deeply for many years.  My mother is a prime example and it wasn’t until a serious illness led her to Dru Yoga that she recognized it. It plays a crucial role in overall health and wellbeing and one I feel so compelled to share.

The first sign of life outside the uterus is the first breath we take; it is the most important and forceful inhalation a human will ever make. It is our first life-affirming action, which enlivens our body making it suitable to sustain life in our new world.

“Breath is life” intones Yoga Ramacharaka in his book, “The Science of Breath”.  “And not only is Man dependent upon Breath for life, but he is largely dependent upon correct habits of breathing for continued vitality and freedom from disease. An intelligent control of our breathing power will lengthen our days upon earth by giving us increased vitality and powers of resistance, and, on the other hand, unintelligent and careless breathing will tend to shorten our days, by decreasing our vitality and laying us open to disease”.

Pranayama, or yogic breathing, is the art of breath control.  Pranayama is derived from the following:

  • Prana – life force or life energy
  • Yama – discipline or control
  • Ayama – expansion, no-restraint or extension.

Pranayama encourages full breathing so that oxygen and life can enter into our lungs and permeate every cell in the body.  In the respiration process, we breathe oxygen into the body, penetrating the body systems in the form of energy which charge our different body parts.

We then breathe out carbon dioxide removing toxic wastes from the body, mind and spirit.

For many of us, our lives are exceedingly busy filled with constant daily stress.  We’re unaware that our breath is often fast and shallow and that we’re only using a fraction of our lungs.  This can result in a lack of oxygen which can lead to different complications such as heart disease, sleep disorder and fatigue.  In Donna Farhi’s  “The Breathing Book” she explains “Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems and also has a general effect on your sleep, your memory, your energy level, and your concentration. Everything you do, the pace you keep, the feelings you have, and the choices you make are influenced by the rhythmic metronome of your breath”.

By practicing deep and systematic breathing through pranayama, we re-energise our body.

The two-way connection between how you breathe and how you feel was elegantly demonstrated in a study that observed how the breath naturally changes during joy, anger, sadness, and fear (Philippot, Chapelle, and Blairy 2002). The researchers induced these four emotions in participants and measured the changes in breathing. They found that there were characteristic changes for each emotion. In a second study, the researchers turned the observations for each emotion into breathing instructions. They had participants change their breathing according to those instructions, with no hint that the breathing patterns were connected to specific emotions. The study found that the breathing patterns reliably created the emotions they were associated with, without any other emotion cue or trigger. – Kelly McGonigal, PhD, Yoga for Pain Relief © 2009 p 25

 Irregular breathers

Some people ‘reverse’ breathe which means the belly doesn’t swell on the inhale but rather contracts, and on the exhale, it puffs out. This type of breathing can be associated with chronic tension, digestive issues, insomnia, and elevated blood pressure.

Others, chest breathe, which is when the person holds the abdomen in, inhibiting the diaphragm from moving fully.  This forces the breath to be experienced only in the chest and typically results in chronic tension, digestive issues and anxiety.

Unconscious stress breathing is believed to have a direct relationship between mental state and breath. This translates to certain patterns during stress; holding the breath, irregular breathing, short breaths and quick, short exhalations.

Perhaps the most profound shift we can make in ourselves and the world, when noticing that we feel agitated, anxious, depressed or angry, is to bring awareness to the breath. Only then can we recognize our unconscious stress breathing patterns and start to bring ease to the breath, taking a gentle breath in and a relaxing breath out without hesitation or strain.

When we engage in such practices, we’re working with the monumental fact that breath is the link between body and mind. Thoughts and emotions affect the breath. And the breath affects thoughts and emotions.

“When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika

How to breathe – one full breath

  • Sit or lie down comfortably. Relax the tongue and jaw, neck and shoulders.  Keep your mouth closed and soften the eyes
  • Begin slowly by inhaling through your larynx via the nose. Use your larynx to draw the breath in filling your lower abdomen and stomach without stopping the movement
  • Continue to inhale smoothly until your rib cage expands sideways, your chest lifts and your collarbone rises
  • Pause at the top of the breath
  • Begin to exhale from deep down in your abdomen, drawing the breath up from below the body
  • Allow the breath, the energy, to flow out of your lower body into the diaphragm
  • The abdomen sinks as the breath moves up through the rib cage expelling energy as it contracts the ribs, and moves into your larynx and out of your nostrils
  • Notice the energy of your breath leave your body
  • Your chest, ribs and collarbone are now fully relaxed
  • Pause at the bottom of the breath

To understand each element of the breath cycle, you can place your hands on your abdomen, ribs, chest and your collarbone to feel the lift and expansion with each inhalation and the drop and contraction with each exhalation.

Breath is life. We could survive for days without food or water. But without oxygen we would die within minutes. It is amazing how little attention we pay to the importance of proper breathing in daily life.

Try practicing this throughout the day be it at the bus stop, washing dishes, sitting at your desk or in bed. Notice how it brings you into the moment.  Try using this breath in moments of anger, stress, anguish, sadness or anxiety and allow the feeling of calm and composure envelope you.