Breathing for Life (Part 2)
Establishing your Deep Breathing Practice
As early as the first millennium B.C., both the Tao religion of China and Hinduism placed importance on a “vital principle” that flows through the body, a kind of energy or internal breath, and viewed respiration as one of its manifestations. The Chinese call this energy qi, and Hindus call it prana. Later in the West, the Greek term pneuma and the Hebrew term rûah referred both to the breath and to the divine presence. In Latin languages, spiritus is at the root of both “spirit” and “respiration.” Recommendations for how to modulate breathing and influence health and mind appeared centuries ago as well. Pranayama (“breath retention”) yoga was the first doctrine to build a theory around respiratory control, holding that controlled breathing was a way to increase longevity.
Pranayama practices include the observation, control, expansion, retention and manipulation of the breath. Pranayama is a mechanism that can help increase memory, improve circulation and promote oxygenation of the blood. A recent study showed that "the physical and cognitive benefits associated with yoga and mindfulness may be due to mechanisms including pranayama and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system." This activation prompts the body to rest, rejuvenate and regenerate efficiently, allowing the system to detoxify and return to homeostasis.
For this breathwork practice, simply begin by noticing your breath as you inhale and exhale through the nose. Do not change the rhythm, just observe its natural movement. Feel the sensation or temperature of the breath in the nostrils. Then, after 5 complete breaths, begin to inhale for a long count of 4 and exhale for a long count of 4. Sama-vritti or an equal breath ratio, engages the parasympathetic nervous system and creates a relaxation response. This simple technique relieves stress, anxiety or agitation. Once the initial ratio has been comfortably established, increase the ratio count to 6 and then 8.
The complete breath: Dirgha Pranayama
Dirgha, meaning long or to lengthen from the ancient language of Sanskrit, is a pranayama that is designed to fill all three chambers of the lungs to facilitate deep oxygenation and remove toxicity from the blood. It eliminates shallow chest breathing and cultivates a deeper and longer breathing pattern which can aid in digestion, circulation and stress relief.
Although this pranayama is also known as a three-part-breath, the inhalation and exhalation should be practiced as one continuous and uniform complete breath.
Place both palms on the abdomen with fingers pointing toward the navel. Steadily through the nostrils, slowly take a deep breath in, beginning to fill the abdomen with air. The abdomen should inflate like a balloon.
As you move your palms up to the rib cage, begin to fill the middle chest, expanding the rib cage or thoracic region.
Then place the palms onto the upper chest, filling the chest, expanding the clavicle region, and lifting the collar bones. The lower part of the abdomen should be slightly drawn in, when the chest is full.
Retain the breath a few seconds if possible.
Slowly exhale through the nostrils, placing the open palms from the chest down to the torso, then down to the abdomen, exhaling each section in one slow continuous movement. The abdomen should slightly draw in, lifting upward as you exhale.
Once you have fully exhaled, suspend or pause the breath for a few seconds before beginning the next inhalation.
Repeat 9 times.
If you feel light headed, try lying down for this one practice. Discontinue if dizziness or lightheadedness persists.
Alternate nostril breathing: Nadi shodhana*
Nadi is the sanskrit word for river or subtle channel, and shodhana is the sanskrit word meaning to cleanse or to purify. Nadi shodhana, commonly referred to as alternate nostril breathing, is a profound cleansing and balancing breath that brings homeostasis to the nervous system. It is best to practice this in the morning after you wake up to bring balance to your day. This breath technique can also be done before a yoga-asana practice or meditation.
For this practice, you will require the right hand only:
Place your left hand down onto your left knee or along side of the body in a comfortable resting position.
On the right hand, bend the index finger and middle finger down towards your palm
Exhale through both nostrils
Close the right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly through the left nostril
Close the left nostril with your ring and little finger, and exhale slowly through the right nostril
Slowly inhale through the right nostril, close the right nostril and exhale slowly through the left nostril
This is considered one round. Repeat 9 rounds.
Ensure that the in-breath and out-breath are equal in ratio or sama-vritti 1:1.
Here are some other commonly used breathing techniques. Five to 10 minutes of exercise can relieve sporadic stress and even fend off panic attacks. More regular practice can lower the daily levels of anxiety.
Stand Up Straight
Posture is important for breathing: hold yourself straight, without stiffness, shoulders back, sitting or standing. This body posture facilitates the free play of the respiratory muscles (of the diaphragm and between the ribs). Good posture enables your body to breathe properly on its own.
Follow Your Breath*
Simply observe your respiratory movements: be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Focus on the sensations you feel as air passes through your nose and throat or on the movements of your chest and belly. When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention to your breath.
Breathe “through your stomach” as much as possible: start by inflating your belly by inhaling, as if to fill it with air, then swell your chest; as you exhale, first “empty” your stomach, then your chest. This type of breathing is easier to observe and test while lying down, with one hand on your stomach.
Near the end of each inhalation, pause briefly while mentally counting “1, 2, 3” and holding the air before exhaling. This counting while not breathing can also be done after exhaling or between each inhalation or exhalation. It is often recommended for anxious patients to calm anxiety attacks because it induces a beneficial slowing of the breathing rate.
Think Reassuring Thoughts While Breathing
With each breath, think soothing thoughts (“I am inhaling calm”). With each exhalation, imagine that you are expelling your fears and worries (“I am exhaling stress”).
But why confine breathing techniques to negative emotions? It is also worth applying them during pleasurable moments, to take the time to appreciate and remember them. In short, one can pause and breathe for enjoyment as well as to calm down.
Breathing deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. Long, deep breaths can also manage our stress responses to help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat and shallow chest breathing. These responses can directly impact our physical, mental and emotional health, and longevity.
Holistic Health is EVERYTHING here at Maze Apothecary. Now that you've got some tips on how to breathe deeply for better health, let us know how your breath-work practice is coming along...
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