Breathing, we do it all the time right? It's an automatic process of the body that exchanges carbon dioxide for oxygen, something we do about 20000 times a day. But breathing can be more than just a biological process; in fact it can be an amazing tool to help promote wellness by allowing the body to relax and release tension. Deeper breathing allows us to experience improved health and a greater ability to deal with stress.
Take a moment right now to become aware of your breath. Are you breathing fully and deeply to the belly? Or is your breath shallow and limited to the upper, front part of the chest? Really notice if your breath is flowing smoothly or perhaps it has a sharp or jagged quality. If you are a shallow breather (most of us are when not paying attention) try breathing in through your nose and sending the breath all the way down to your belly allowing it to gently expand. Now breathe slowly out through the nose. Take one more full, deep breath into the belly and see if you can expand the breath down to the belly and up into your collar bones. How do you feel now? Calmer, perhaps a little more focused? When your breath is shallow the body becomes tense; as you exhale with a long sigh the body lets go and relaxes.
The ancient yogis discovered that the breath is one of the few involuntary processes in the body that may also be consciously controlled. In Patanjali's classical yoga sutras Pranayama is a practice onto itself. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word meaning "extension of the prana or breath" or more accurately, "extension of the life force". The word is composed of two Sanskrit words, Prāna, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, and "āyāma", to extend, draw out, restraint, or control. When practicing yoga, tai chi, or meditation one uses the conscious control of breath to affect the life force of the body.
The good news is you don't need to lock yourself away in an ashram or temple to enjoy the benefits of breath awareness, all that is required is a few minutes of quiet time to practice. Once you begin breath awareness you will start to notice that your body affects the breath and the breath affects the body. As you become more in tune with your breath you will enjoy a deeper connection between the mind and body. There are many different breathing practices that can be explored but these are best done with direct guidance from a yoga instructor who has studied this area extensively.
The practice that follows is a simple and natural breath observation that may be used to clear the mind, reduce stress and general relaxation. So where does one begin breath awareness? To start, simply set your focus on gaining a sensitivity to your breath. This may be tricky at first as your mind may jump from thought to thought or you may even start to feel sleepy. This is where it is more practical to start with 3 to 5 minutes of practice perhaps first thing in the morning or before bedtime.
Begin by closing your eyes and start to observe your breath. If it is comfortable breathe in and out through the nose with your mouth closed and jaw relaxed. Breathing though the nostrils filters and warms the air before it reaches the lungs.
As you observe your breath focus on the following points;
What does your breath feel like? Is it smooth or jagged, fast or slow?
Is the breath cool or warm?
What part of the body is moving as you breath in and out?
Is your breath restricted or does it move freely in and out?
If the breath feels restricted at which point does it stop flowing?
Is the breath longer on inhalation or exhalation or is it even?
Do you hold your breath after inhaling?
What does it feel like to observe your breath?
For the next week spend a few minutes a day observing your breath. With each day of practice you should become more familiar and aware of your natural breath. As your awareness develops you can begin using the breath as a tool for developing physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
Jeanette is a Registered Acupuncturist and Reiki Master at Trinity Registered Massage Therapy located at Huron Crossing and Sage Naturopathic Clinic in Kitchener.