No matter how much screaming, crying and pushing it takes for birth labor to end and new life to begin, there is a moment of stillness that everyone instinctively honors. We collectively hold our breath, delaying our exhale, until we hear the ethereal inhale of the baby. In the suspended space between the two, there is a portal into the eternal circle of life.
Breath is the substance of life. Everything that is alive must breath, which provides an essential exchange with the universe. There is an inhale and an exhale, a reaching and a release, the proverbial yin and yang. Beings that are conscious of this exchange can hold the breath, but they cannot stop the breath. To stop the breath is to stop being alive.
The energy that creates the breath is Prana. Prana is the primordial life force; it is the physical, mental, intellectual, sexual and spiritual expressions of our Self. Prana is also the heat, light, gravity, magnetism and electricity of the physical world around us. Prana creates, protects and destroys.
In yoga, we practice the physical postures, called asanas, to open and align our bodies for the maximum flow of prana. To lend an analogy, asanas open the lanes of our energy highway. When we are misaligned, we will notice energy ‘traffic’ or blockages in the form of pain, numbness, heat, tightness and even complete malfunction.
In addition to yoga asanas (poses), we can practice breath control to regulate the flow of prana through our bodies. Breath control is the throttle which steadies the flow of the energetic force and creates equilibrium. In the ancient Indian language of sanskrit, breath control is known as pranayama.
Pranayama is an art and a technique that can connect and unite an individual’s physical mind and carnal body with the divine spirit and eternal soul. Pranayama is awareness and control of the breath.
Breathing is the only autonomic (involuntary) nervous system function that we can directly influence. Much like involuntary muscles control the heart, digestive tract and iris of the eye, the autonomic nervous system governs not only breath, but body temperature, perspiration and blood pressure, all of which are sustained without conscious effort.
The breath is a conduit to both the mind and the body. If the breath is agitated and unbalanced, so are the mental and physical processes. So for well-being of mind and body, we must learn to regulate the breath. It has been said that life is measured through our breath. Increasing the quality and the length of our breath does the same for our life.
Right now, notice your breath. Are you breathing through your nose, your mouth or both? Is your breath shallow or deep? Even or unsteady? Chaotic or calm? When does your belly swell (or does it?) When does your chest expand?
If you watch a sleeping baby, you can relearn quickly what it means to breath correctly. Many of us grow up to forget. Half of the population will notice that their belly swells during exhalation, while their chest expands during inhalation. This reverse breathing is due to exaggerated use of the chest, neck and shoulders, which leads to chronic tension in these areas and irregular biological rhythms with blood pressure, constipation, menstruation, urination, insomnia and tachycardia.
Proper breathing is a 3-part wave-like sensation, where the inhalation is descending vertically and the exhalation is ascending. To breath in: expand your chest first, feel your diaphragm drop to make room for your lungs to expand, inflate the belly. To breath out: allow the abdomen to collapse, pull in and up on your musculature, feel your diaphragm lift as your lungs contract, consciously complete the exhale.
When you breath, open your posture and straighten your spine. Create space for the breath by lifting your heart and softening your jaw. The inhale is stimulating and nourishing. The exhale is cleansing release.
Breathe through the nose when you can. In a study done of 153 heart attack survivors, 100 percent were thoracic breathers with no detectable diaphragmatic movement, and 75 percent were mouth breathers.2. During mouth breathing, there is no filter to prevent dust particles from reaching the lungs. Air is warmed by the body, and this can damage the throat and lungs and increase infections. Breathing through the nose stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and provokes a relaxation response.
Ingesting, absorbing, releasing and eliminating are the universal elements of exchange. It’s a cycle that governs our interactions, and it can be easy to recognize when there is an imbalance in the system. We all know that person who talks without listening, eats without tasting, works without resting, takes without giving. And unless the imbalance seems to work in our favor, we experience motivating discomfort that sets the system right.
But imbalance NEVER works in our favor. Deepak Chopra offers a simple exercise to this point. “Right now, take a deep breath in and hold it. Feel the increasing discomfort that builds as you resist the natural impulse to let go. When it becomes too uncomfortable, release your breath and notice the immediate relief that you feel. Holding on to anything when it is time to let go creates distress in your body and mind. Now take a breath, fully empty your lungs, and hold breath. Become aware of the increasing discomfort that develops when you resist something from entering your life that you are meant to accept. Notice the relief that you feel as you take your next breath.”1
In breathing, as in life, we must balance passive awareness with assertive intention. This is the crux of pranayama, the ebb and flow that is our life. It begins with an inhale, it ends with an exhale and what happens in between is pure potential.