Breathing. Something we do automatically; without thinking. I’ve discussed different types of breathing and why it’s important in other posts. Today I’ll explore the effects of adding different breathing techniques to yoga (or anything else).
Breath is the central focus of many disciplines ranging from yoga to martial arts to various meditative disciplines. The reason for this is the impact that breathing has on, well, everything. For example, I can be sitting in a barcalounger and use a calming breath (ujayii, longer exhale than inhale, dirgha, to name a few) and it will settle my body and mind. Sitting in the exact same chair in the exact same position but using a more aggressive breath (kapalabhati, bellows, fire breath, short inhale/exhales, etc.) will result in my heart rate increasing and my mind becomes more alert. The difference is how I breathe.
First a little experiment. Sit comfortably, or lie down. Take a moment to connect to how you are breathing now. Notice if it’s fast and shallow or a slower more full breath. Next take inventory of your mind. Are you feeling sluggish and foggy, or is the monkey mind reigning at the moment. Depending on where you fall, go through the exercise below that most closely fits where you are in this moment.
To settle a monkey mind (you know the one; it jumps from thought to thought and never sits still), I’ve found this breathing technique to be quite soothing.
Place your hands on your belly. As you inhale focus on your lower belly expanding like a balloon. On the exhale, feel the belly sink all the way back to the spine. Start with about a 4 second inhale through the nose and a 5-6 second exhale through the lips. Repeat this cycle until your breathing natural slows and allow it to move to a 5-6 second inhale/exhale pattern. When the breath gets to this point, gently seal the lips and breathe through your nose only. Continue this pattern as long as you like until your mind settles.
If your mind still won’t settle, begin to count the thoughts as they fly through your mind and let them go.
With time, patience and practice, I’ve found this to be a simple and highly effective method for calming the monkey mind.
It’s been a long day, just after lunch and your ability to focus is sort of like looking through coconut oil; you know those days.
To refocus the mind and get your day back on track, here is a breathing exercise that I find helpful. Sit or lie comfortably, close your eyes and focus on your belly. Take deliberate, slightly forceful inhales filling your lungs about 75% of the way and then an equally forceful exhale emptying out about 90% of the air. Repeat this pattern for about 10-12 breaths. Slowly let a normal breathing pattern return and open your eyes. Open your eyes slowly and notice a new sense of alertness in your mind and body. If, during the forceful breathing, dizziness or a headache starts to occur, resume normal breathing immediately.
Now that you’ve seen first-hand the effects breathing can have on the body and mind, I want to explore how adding different breathing techniques can change the experience of things like yoga, meditation and even just standing.
For this post, I’d like to explore standing. That’s it, just standing, no funky twists, bends or contortions, just good old teeth brushing, dish washing standing.
To start, stand up. Find a comfortable standing position, weight even on both feet, knees straight but not locked, abs engaged in and up, chest loose, shoulders relaxed and lengthen through the crown of the head. From there, notice (no commentary, no criticism) where you are breathing. Chest, belly, all over. Lungs full of air or only partially. Now notice how you feel mentally. Alert and present or a little fuzzy and disconnected.
Changing nothing else, start breathing using the Foggy Mind method above. Just a few minutes is enough. Now notice how you’re feeling. The same, or different? Hopefully you feel a little more alert and are breathing deeper into the lungs with each breath.
Now switch to Monkey Mind as described above. Again, a few minutes are all it takes. Notice the changes in your mind, in your emotions and breathing. Ideally you now feel calm, centered and steady.
If this didn’t work for you, I recommend trying it sitting (if comfort was an issue) or just trying it again but perhaps for a longer period of time. Once you do start feeling the differences, breathing (at least for me) becomes this fun, fascinating tool that I can use to augment pretty much anything in my daily life and not just on a yoga or meditation mat.
These are two very simple breathing techniques layered with a simple posture. I encourage you to play with other types of breathing and to do it in other “postures” and situations. The effects are often unexpected and spectacular.