Our breath is the most vital and fundamental part of human existence. Without it, we would survive little more than a few minutes. When we are tired, hungry or thirsty, we seek nourishment in the form of rest, food and water. However, when we are stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, we are often unsure where to find relief.
Panic attacks, asthma, and hyperventilation show how important our connection to our breath can be. Understanding your breath tells us a lot about the states of our being. Is your breath short and raspy? Deep and long? Are you breathing into your belly or your chest? How do you feel when you pause to focus on your breath? Our breath can be used to relieve stress, squash anxieties, release tension, and reinforce the connection with our bodies and the world around us.
In yoga, breath control is called Pranayama. It literally means control of our vital life forces. Pranayama is used in almost every asana class, either through Ujjayi breathing (victorious breath), or simply being asked to bring the awareness to the breath. Below are three exercises to help you gain more control over your breathing, and in turn, your life.
1. Breath Awareness
- The first part of breath control is learning to listen and understand your breathing patterns.
- First, locate your breathing. Are you breathing into your chest or belly?
- How deep and nourishing is your breath?
- How often are you inhaling?
- What are the lengths of your inhales and exhales?
2. Deep Belly Breathing
Start by gently placing both hands on your belly. Take a deep inhale so you can feel your belly fill up with air beneath your hands. Do this for 3 minutes, making sure your inhales and exhales are of equal length. It will activate the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) – also known as the ‘rest and digest system.’ It is our built-in antidote to stress. Activating the PNS will make us feel calm, centered and collected.
3. Three-Part Breathing
It is regularly breathing, except the exhaling happens in three distinct parts. Take a normal inhale, then as you exhale, pause twice. It is essential that you are not exhaling during the pauses. Do this 15 times and notice the sense of peacefulness and serenity that washes over you. This technique is useful if you have trouble sleeping at night, or you feel particularly stressed after a busy day.
Mindful breathing is a practice that should extend out into our lives off our yoga mats. Working on breathing control will provide benefits to all areas of your lives. Our breath acts as the connection between our mind, body, and spirit, and conscious breathing is as important to our health as nourishing food, or deep sleep. It is the literal embodiment of the fundamental life force that connects all living beings. Next time you feel over-wash with stress or anxiety, try the exercises above and notice the immediate difference they make on your sense of wellbeing.