“One conscious breath -in and out- is a meditation.”
Did you know that out of all the systems in the body, the respiratory system is the only one that can be controlled either consciously or unconsciously? By choosing to consciously control what is usually an unconscious process, you can change unconscious patterns in your thinking. Want to change the way you respond to things that trigger you to anger, fear, or shame? Start with the way you breathe. Notice if you’re holding your breath or breathing shallowly during stressful situations, then make a conscious choice to breathe more deeply and more fully.
When talking about breath, we can’t neglect addressing prana, which is tied to our breath. “Prana” is a Sanskrit word meaning “life force”. It represents absolute, divine energy. According to ancient masters, “Prana is a mystical force that is found in all living physical entities, but which is non-physical. It is in the air without being air. It is in water without being water. it is in food without being food.” Ancient sages taught that wherever there is life, there is prana. They also taught that each person is allotted a number a breaths for their lifetime, and that conscious breathing would lengthen a person’s lifespan. Scientifically, this is true, because mindful breathing over time is shown to reduce stress, which is linked to a large assortment of chronic health problems.
Pranayam is the use of breathing techniques to control the movement of prana- the life force energy- through our bodies. Though prana comes into our bodies with the air, it doesn’t necessarily go to the lungs. Prana can be directed to different areas of the body through conscious breathing. Even a slight change in the way your breathe can change the way you feel and see the world. If you want to change your mental or emotional state, change your breath. Do these breath exercises in bed, seated at your desk, in the car, while making dinner, as part of a more formal meditation, or even discretely during a stressful workday (which for me includes my writing and working from home time, running my kids around during carpool, studying, cooking, and running the household). Here are my favorite 3 simple go-to pranayama, or breathing exercises:
North- South Breathing (aka Alternate Nostril Breathing)
This breathing technique puts the mind and body into harmony. It balances the right and left hemispheres of your brain. I love to use this pranayam to start my meditation time, and it is also extremely helpful to remain calm and grounded during transition times, such as ending the workday and moving into family time, before public speaking, or shifting into productivity mode. North-South breathing helps create a sense of well-being, and can even help mitigate headaches and other stress-related symptoms. Here’s how to do it:
- Use the thumb of the right hand to close the right nostril, and gently and fully inhale through the left nostril.
- Then close the left nostril with the index finger of your right hand and exhale through the right nostril.
- Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
- Close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
- Continue repeating, alternating nostrils after each inhalation- so you exhale and inhale on one side, then switch and do the same on the other side, alternating which side you are breathing on.
- As you alternate sides, visualize the air passing in and out as a cleansing light.
- Complete 12 complete rounds of North- South breathing.
*Breathing through the left nostril is associated with Calmness, Empathy, Sensitivity.
*Breathing through the right nostril is associated with Concentration, Alertness, Readiness-for-action, Willpower
This breath technique is a lifesaver during frustrating and stressful situations, especially ones that trigger anger and powerlessness. Best of all, it is sooooo simple.
- Breathe in slowly for 7 counts, then breathe out for 11 counts (You are free to alter the numbers and do any variation of this).
The important thing is that you are breathing out for a longer time period than you are breathing in. This may take a little practice but you don’t need to count slowly- it should be comfortable. The trick is to space your breathing so that you are inhaling and exhaling evenly over the 7 or 11- count span. By emphasizing exhaling during this exercise, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. (Remember the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems? The sympathetic nervous system is where your “fight or flight” response occurs- the stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for resting and digesting- the relaxation response.) The parasympathetic nervous system slows the heartbeat and relaxes the circulation, nerves, and digestive system. It relaxes us and promotes elimination of waste and toxins, both physically and emotionally.
Humming breath is a very soothing, anxiety- relieving breathing exercise. It is also very simple, but it might feel awkward to do around other people, so it’s best done when you won’t be worried about anyone raising their eyebrows at you. That said, it can be a very powerful experience to do Humming Breath with others in a group meditation setting.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose.
- Hum “Mmmmmmmmm” — in an even tone as you exhale. Hum until the very bottom of your exhalation, but do not strain.
- Repeat this inhale/humming exhale cycle for as long as it feels good. For some this is a few breaths, for others, a few minutes. If you’d like a set amount of time, try starting with 3 minutes.
- Finish with a few deep, normalizing breaths.
What do you think? Can you find a way to incorporate more conscious breathing into your day? We’d love to hear your experiences.
PS- Follow us on Instagram! We’ll be talking a lot more about the specifics of breath this week, so check us out for how-to videos and personal application of this information!