by Laura Malouf-Renning
For as long as I can remember, being in tight, crowded spaces has always been a stressor for me. Even as a kid, I would feel my chest get tight, my heart start to pound, and my breath come in shallow, rapid gasps. My mom would notice what was going on and begin singing to me. Since I’ve never been able to resist the siren call of a song, I would start singing with her, and eventually the tension would begin to fade, and I’d be able to cope with my surroundings. Over time, that was how my family coped with stressful moments; we would sing to each other. My sister and I even wound up singing camp fire songs to each other on my wedding day to soothe my nerves.
My family had stumbled upon a rather powerful practice without knowing it: pranayama. The word comes from the Sanskrit root words “Prana”, meaning our life force or energy, and “Ayama” which means to retain or control. The most tangible way for us to notice the movement of prana in our bodies is to observe the movement of the breath. In fact, breath itself is prana! We can live for up to ten days without sleep. We can live up to a week without food. We can live for several days without water. But without the breath, we can only live for a few moments. So in essence, our breath is the link between our physical body and our energetic body. Since the average person breathes about 20,000 times a day, we have ample opportunity to observe how the breath affects our mind, our emotions, and our physical body.
By altering how we use our breath, we can influence the very health of our body, mind, and emotions. More energizing breath practices like kapallabhati (skull shining breath), Breath of fire, and Ujaiyi breath (victorious breath), can act as a cosmic cup of coffee to wake us up, fire up our metabolism, and even lift us up out of the heavy funk many of us may have found us in this winter. More soothing breathing practices like rhythmic belly breathing (exhale twice as long as inhale), nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing), and sitali (cooling breath) can cool us down, soothe anxiety, and balance our minds. By altering our breathing patterns according to what we need, we can direct our own prana wherever it needs to go in order to heal ourselves. Amazing!
This is why singing with others and chanting can feel so good. When we sing, we are working with a lengthened exhale, which turns off the fight or flight response and turns on the rest and digest response. In addition, the soothing vibrations of our voices nourish and balance our mind and emotions by stimulating the ventral vagus nerve. A number of scientific studies have shown that this nerve stimulation increases heart rate variability, which guards our bodies against heart attack and stroke, and even stimulates our immune system. So, chanting not only feels good; it’s actually good FOR you!
Our breath is inextricably intertwined with our yoga practice on the mat. Each inhale and exhale moves us mindfully and smoothly from one asana to another, anchoring us in the present. When I first began practicing yoga, I noticed that I felt more connected to myself and others, as well as less leery of crowds when I had made it to my mat that day. Now as a yoga teacher, I have a daily breath and asana practice that anchors me in my day.
A testament to my daily practice arose while I was on vacation last week in New York City. I was at Penn Station at rush hour, and I boarded a crowded A Train in order to make my way back to my hotel. We were packed in like sardines, but this time I noticed something different: I was completely calm and at ease. My breathing was slow and deep, and I was able to enjoy the experience and the people around me. It was at that moment I realized that my sense of peace wasn’t dependent on my outer environment; it was wholly dependent on my sense of inner space. If I can find that in New York City rush hour, I can find it anywhere. And so can you.
Laura teaches regularly at Laughing Lotus San Francisco. To find out when you can catch one of her classes, visit our class schedule page. (Click Here)