I once had an asthma attack as a kid. I was at my grandparents’ house after finishing a day at kindergarten class and my grandma noticed me breathing strangely, gasping for breath as I sat in her living room watching television. Alarmed, she called my mom and off I went to the hospital where I stayed for a few nights. I never had another attack after that, but my lung capacity henceforth has always left a lot to be desired. After every cross country meet in high school, I would cross the finish line doubled over, short of breath. This was far beyond what my teammates experienced. In my mid twenties, I had to receive medication for a serious illness that restricted my lung capacity even further. For these reasons, my breath was always something I struggled against as a child and young adult, and my nervous, fearful temperament reflected this fact.
All of this began to change when I began practicing yoga. I discovered, to my amazement, that I could actually befriend and work with my breath. The life force coursing through me didn’t have to be my enemy. I could slow down, take up space, and not have to go through life as if I was being chased by a giant grizzly bear! I noticed my behavior change as well. I became more extroverted, calm, assertive and adventurous as my practice grew.
The benefits of mindful breathing are manifold. Here are just a few:
Reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body
Shifts body from autonomic nervous system agitated “fight or flight” reactions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system of “rest and digest” response, returning the body to homeostasis
Positively shifts emotional states
Lowers/stabilizes blood pressure
Relaxes the muscles
As many in the community know, the past month has been rather tumultuous to say the least. The only thing any of us can do is take life one day at a time and keep breathing through it all. No matter what happens, just keep breathing. What other option is there, really? We can try with all our might to influence the world around us, but we can not control most externalities. All we can even attempt to control is ourselves. Pranayama is a Sanskrit term defined by many as “control of the breath.” By starting at the most gross, visceral level and guiding the breath, we can begin to direct the mind as well. There is no more valuable resource than this. I often tell my students that I don’t care what the pose looks like, I’m far more concerned with the quality of their breathing.
The most common breath practice in yoga is something called ujjayi pranayama – victorious breath. It is aptly named because it is a powerful tool for helping the yogi work towards self-mastery while releasing misplaced desires to manage what is beyond one’s reach. This is, of course, the most meaningful victory of all.
Try this simple exercise to experience ujjayi pranayama for yourself:
Find a comfortable seat in which you feel both relaxed and alert. Sit up tall and let your shoulders release away from your ears. Bring both hands to your stomach and feel your hands move outwards on an inhale and inwards on an exhale. Keep your mouth open for now. The idea is to replace our normal shallow breathing that occurs mostly in the chest with slow, even deep belly breathing. Place one of your palms directly in front of your face and on your next exhale breath as though you’re trying to fog up a pair of glasses. This will produce an audible, rather strange sound not unlike Darth Vader from Star Wars. (When Madonna tried teaching this to Rosie O’Donnell back in the nineties, the comedienne exclaimed “Ohhhhh my God, that sounds like Satan making capuccino!!!!!”) Keep that sound and position of your throat going for the inhale. Breath in and out like that a few more times.
Final step: keep everything the same but close your mouth and breathe only through your nose. You’ll still be making a strange, audible sound, but it won’t be quite as loud. Once that feels comfortable, you can begin to slow down your breath and intentionally equalize the length of the inhale, the exhale, and even the spaces in between. It might feel laborious at first, but you’ll get it n no time if you keep practicing.
Be grateful for every breath, it means you’re still alive.
Enrique draws from a background in dance and theatre and seeks to challenge and inspire his students with enthusiasm, humor and kindness. He believes that yoga is a fantastic tool for dissolving limitations and uncovering the brave, wise, compassionate warrior within.
The initial thing that we do as individuals is to take our first breath. We are brought into this world dependent upon the person who birthed us. Taking in oxygen through the miraculous placenta and umbilical cord is something we do from the support of the body we are housed in utero; our lungs are collapsed and don’t take in air at this point. The first action we carry out on our own is to fill our lungs with air and breathe… this may come as a scream or cry but it is still our first breath.
Before I became pregnant I was unaware of this.
After witnessing the miracle of birth and the first breath of my son Everett, I know now without a doubt that there is even more fascination with the breath that I have yet to discover.
During the first month with my baby it was interesting to watch his little body become accustomed to breathing on his own. There were moments when he would breathe more rapidly; others that were more sporadic, and often lengthy stretches of time would go by without a breath. As a new parent it was very unnerving and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to hear his next breath. My husband Jeff and I were constantly checking him during his sleep to hear his breath.
When Everett turned two months old I would watch him take long sweet deep breaths into his belly. It is the breath of trust, love, and simplicity. The weight of the world wasn’t weighing down on him and he doesn’t even know what the word stress means. He was in a constant state of rest and digest of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Now that he is six months old, the world is starting to open up to him and I can see that his emotions are beginning to take charge. The perceived stress from not being able to grab a toy just out of his reach, when he wants a sip of my tea, or wants to play with something that isn’t for six months old to play with gets him worked up. When this is happening I pick him up, hold him to my chest and breathe deeply. Often I’ll add a sigh so that he can hear it and feel my breath on his chest. Almost instantly his body responds and he calms down. This is all the proof I need to know that these pranayama practices work.
Prana is vitality, life force energy, and respiration. Yama means to extend, regulate, and control. The two words coming together to form Pranayama meaning to extend our vitality and respiration, as well as move energy throughout our body with different breath exercises. Pranayama can help regulate our mood, digest our food and emotions, and bring us into the present moment. What always amazes me is that this is what our body is built and naturally equipped to do.
As life starts to get more complicated, our natural inclination of taking those deep belly breaths starts to decline and it can become a habit to keep the breath at a shallow place in our chest. Stress and anxiety can cause us to take more shallow breaths as a response to fight or flight, operating from the sympathetic nervous system. We become wired for stress and anxiety, and this becomes a normal way of going about life. When this happens it can be very easy to find a quick fix that will mask the stress in the form of something that can be damaging like alcohol or drugs.
What if we could just trust in this built in pranic system that we already have inside of us that the yogis discovered hundreds of years ago. It only takes a few seconds to close your eyes take a deep inhale and a deeper exhale.
Now if only as adults we had someone around us at all times to pick us up, hold us against their chest and remind us to breathe.
Being a mother is my biggest daily reminder that life is so precious and that each breath is amazing and each breath counts.
“There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then, there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.” – Rumi
by Erica Martin
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
― Amit Ray
I remember my first panic attack vividly: the narrowing tunnel of vision, my heartbeat a frantic pattering in my chest, my breath fast and shallow. And there were 50 fourth graders in front of me, watching this all go down, watching me go down more specifically. I felt so helpless, I was the captain of this ship and I was drowning.
What followed was another downward emotional spiral; I felt embarrassed for “losing it,” a sense of helplessness, and isolation. Admitting this happened felt like a failure on my end, a failure that I couldn’t control (the worst kind). At a loss, I turned to research, and the research was clear: the answer lies in our breath.
Scientifically, magic happens when you take a deep breath, specifically when you lengthen the exhale to twice the count of the inhale. When we are stressed (perceived threats or actual) we begin to breath rapidly. This action is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. It’s part of the “fight or flight” response — the part activated by stress.
In contrast, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction — the one that calms us down.
Of course, the yogis have been on to this powerful practice for years through the practice of pranayama, control or extension of life force. Through pranayama, we learn to use the breath to cultivate an internal sense of well being.
Every day we experience hundreds of small and big moments of stress. Some of these stressors can be avoided, but must are environmental aspects that we have very little control over and will always be there. Practice of pranayama gives us a tool, the breath, to help us ride these waves. In the words of Jon Kabbot-Zinn, “[We] can’t stop the waves from coming, but [we] can learn to surf.”
Through conscious breathing I’ve learned how to ride the wave, rather than getting trapped inside the whitewash of a scary stress response. There are a variety of breathing techniques that have helped me in this process. Here are just a few to get you started!
1. Nadhi Sodhana
Nadhi sodhana, also known as alternative nostril breathing, is a very relaxed, balancing breath that is used to help calm the nervous system and aid in a restful night’s sleep. By increasing the amount of oxygen taken into the body, it’s believed that this breath can also purify the blood, calm the mind, reduce stress, and promote concentration.
How to do it: Nadhi sodhana can be done seated or lying down. To start, empty all the air from your lungs. Using the thumb of your dominant hand, block your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril only. Be sure to inhale into your belly, not your chest. Once you are full of breath, seal your left nostril with the ring finger of the same hand, keeping your right nostril closed, and hold the breath for a moment. Then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril only. Be sure to exhale all the breath out of the right side and pause before inhaling again through the same side. Seal both nostrils once you’ve inhaled on the right side and exhaled through the left side. A complete cycle of breath includes an inhalation and exhalation through both nostrils. If you’re just starting out, you can do a four-count inhale, holding your breath for four to eight counts, then exhale for four counts. Perform up to ten cycles and notice how your body responds. You may feel more relaxed and calm in both your mind and body.
When to do it: Nadhi sodhana is a calm, soothing breath that can be done any time of day. Try practicing this technique when you are anxious, nervous, or having trouble falling asleep.
2. Ujjayi Pranayama
Ujjayi means victorious breath and often has an oceanic like quality to it. Ujjayi encourages full expansion of the lungs and can assist in calming the mind.
How to do it: Find a place where you can sit comfortably with a straight spine. Take a steady breath in through both nostrils. Inhale until you reach your lung capacity; maintain a tall spine. Hold your breath for a second, then constrict some of the breath at the back of your throat, as if you were about to whisper a secret, and exhale slowly through both nostrils. This exhalation will sound like an ocean wave or gentle rush of air. You should feel the air on the roof of your mouth as you exhale. Repeat up to 20 times.
When to do it: This breath can be practiced for up to 10 minutes at any time of day. Try it with an asana practice as well.
3. Sitali Pranayama
Sitali also means cooling, which explains the effect it can have on your mind and body. This breath encourages clearing heat with coolness.
How to do it: Roll your tongue until the outer edges touch, forming a tube. If you can’t curl your tongue, make an oval shape with your mouth, keeping your tongue flat. Inhale through your mouth, taking in all the air that you can. It may make a hissing sound. After inhaling, bring the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and seal your lips. Feel the coolness of the inhalation in your month then exhale through your nose. Repeat five to ten times or as needed.
When to do it: If you’re feeling overheated, irritable, or find yourself waiting impatiently in hot weather, sitali is a great tool to try to cool off and relax.
4. Mindful Breathing
In times of stress, start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Other times, this can be practiced by simply observing the breath without trying to adjust it.
How to do it: Find a relaxed, comfortable position. Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe. Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins. If your mind wanders, take note and say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing. Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thought, then return to your breath.
When to do it: This is a favorite of mine because it can be done at any point and in public (without too many funny stares). Riding on Muni, waiting in line for groceries, stuck in traffic, you always have access to mindful breathing.
Erica is passionate about bringing the power of yoga to youth and their teachers. She teaches Tuesday and Friday mornings at 7:00 AM and Lotus Flow on Sundays at 11:45 AM