Stop reading this. Take a second to notice. How are you breathing right now?
Quickly, slowly, deeply, shallowly, regular breaths or irregular? Is the in-breath the same length as the out-breath or not?
Breathing is the most natural thing in the world – our lives depend on it. Of course you know you’re breathing every second of every day, but do you pay any attention to how you’re breathing? Maybe you do when you’re on the yoga mat. But what about throughout the day?
Do you notice the quality of your breath? Do you breathe in the way your body (and mind) needs for optimum health and well-being?
“If you breathe well, you will live long on this earth” (Sanskrit proverb)
Watching my infant niece recently, breathing slow, deep, full breaths without a care in the world completely in the present moment, led me to wondering why we don’t breathe like that throughout our whole lives.
Compare this to most adults: breathing shallowly at the chest or barely perceptibly breathing at all, stooped over and distracted.
Have a look around next time you’re on a train or bus, or at work in an office or sitting in a cafe. Notice how people are breathing. So many of us can go through life unaware of our breath – and unaware of its true power.
When do we forget to breathe?
Times we may forget to breathe:
- Sitting at a computer all day – we’re operating from headspace and become dislocated from our bodies; our posture may suffer, as does our breathing
- When anxious, tense or worried about something – we tend to breathe shallowly which means that our bodies aren’t getting enough oxygen
- Watching TV, especially if watching something very dramatic, violent or emotionally involving – part of your brain thinks those things are real and your body reacts as if they are e.g. you may feel fear or anger and your body kicks in the fight or flight response
But what happens to us that makes us forget how to breathe?
I suspect we begin to lose this innate natural deep breathing once we start to become institutionalised – i.e. when we go to school – when we lose the ability to go with our flow and keep on moving all day.
We begin to develop bad postural habits sitting at a school desk or at a computer all day; our shoulders slump and our sternum collapses down and it becomes practically a physical impossibility to breathe well because our lungs cannot expand to their full capacity.
And on an emotional level, if we receive messages that tell us we shouldn’t be doing what comes naturally, that we should follow the rules, that we’re not good enough, we start to retreat in on ourselves.
We want to fend off these feelings and protect our vulnerable heart so we round our shoulders and disconnect from others – and our own deepest feelings and our natural breath.
Yet breathing is unconscious. And that deep, full breath that brings us energy and vitality is our true nature – our birthright.
Transform your breath, transform your life
I find it wonderful and fascinating that by bringing our awareness to our breathing we can engage with the relationship between our breath, body, mind and emotions and transform how we feel in this moment, and indeed transform our lives.
Our breath will affect how we’re feeling and how we’re feeling will affect our breath.
On a physiological level as we breathe in we take in the vital oxygen through our respiratory system that our body needs and as we breathe out we expel waste products such as carbon dioxide. So as you can see, the out breath is equally as important as the in breath, but actually takes more effort to perform fully.
On an energetic level, as we breathe in we take in Prana – the subtle energetic life-force of all living beings.
Learning to breathe fully and to do that every day will have the effect of giving us more energy, making us feel alert yet also calm and composed and ready to deal with life’s challenges and to appreciate life’s beauties.
The Deep Yogic Breath
In yoga we breathe using the Deep Yogic Breath (DYB) – as a practice in itself and as we practise sequences and postures.
The DYB utilizes the three parts of the breath:
- Diaphragmatic breathing – the abdomen rises and falls
- Thoracic breathing – the rib cage expands then contracts
- Clavicular breathing – the collar bones and shoulders rise and fall.
I find that practising this breath helps to calm my mind and emotions and brings me into more of an awareness of my body. It helps to bring me into the present and notice how I am feeling today.
Also, practising the Deep Yogic Breath can show me where I’m holding tension – in my abdomen or my throat for example.
A really simple breathing exercise is just to count to three as you breathe in and to three as you breathe out – this helps to equalize the breath and to slow it down if you’re tense or anxious.
So, remember how to breathe, notice your breath throughout the day, and bring your awareness to the practice of breathing and see what a difference this makes to how you feel.
Stella Tomlinson teaches Dru yoga in Southampton, UK. Dru yoga is a flowing and therapeutic style of yoga, characterised by graceful movements, directed breathing, relaxation techniques and working with affirmations and visualisations. Connect with Stella via Facebook and Twitter.