If you’ve ever watched a two year old have a temper tantrum, you’ve witnessed the power of the breath. In the beginning, the energy behind the screaming and thrashing are scene stealing events that gain momentum with every inhale. But soon, the determined little face begins to turn red, while the lips fade to blue, with splotchy hot tears and rigid, heavy limbs quickly bringing a crescendo of resistance.
But all the inhaling without exhaling, and exhaling without inhaling crashes the little system and Mother Nature lovingly hits the reset button with diaphragmatic spasms that lead to the long, even respirations of sleep. Sweet dreams redirect the focus, and a hug and a snack set the world back on it’s axis.
At the tender age of two, we are biologically hard-wired to surrender. Our breath softens our will, bringing our minds and body back into sync. But as we grow, our intentions become more determined. We must become mindful of the imbalance this creates. As adults, we instinctively know when a child needs a ‘time-out’, a few moments to ‘catch their breath’. But to our detriment, we often deny ourselves that same simple space.
When you get on an airplane, the first thing they tell you is to put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t be of aid to anyone else if you don’t save yourself. We often get this backward…holding our breath while we furiously try to be of service. But just like the two year old, an unstable breath takes us to a crescendo of resistance where we find stress, anger, fear and suffering.
So learning to notice and properly respond to our own breath allows us stay centered, grounded and in control of our actions, words and even thoughts. Unless you’ve got time for a nap and a snack, a temper tantrum will not lead you to peace.
The first and most basic form of pranayama (breath control) is simply complete breathing, known as dirgha. Close the eyes, and take a moment to notice how you are breathing. When it feels comfortable, begin to breathe in and out through the nose. Fill up the lungs, the back and the belly, and match the inhale to the exhale. On the exhale, add a little abdominal effort to fully finish the release. Relax any muscle tension that you find and enjoy the resulting calm. Work up to 10 breaths in a row.
When you’re ready for more, constricting your throat and slowing the breath even more allows for deeper focus and calm. Ujjayi /oo’ji’yee/ breath creates a Darth Vadar-like sound, and is often the noise heard in yoga class that makes the newbies nervous. To understand the method, place your palm an inch away from your face and breathe as though you were trying to fog up a mirror, and then close your mouth. Ujjayi breathing is easily incorporated into asana (poses) practice or any physical movement, and will ground you and create rhythm.
Ultimately, breath is the gift of life, and how we breath is a direct reflection of how we live. When we work with the breath, we create the space to experience each situation we encounter as pure potential and positive karma. When we fall into unconsciousness breathing patterns, we become reactive, confused and disheartened. Putting on our own oxygen mask and using our breath to acknowledge and respond to our needs is the only way our body and mind can be of service to others.