This article is an extract from The Power of Relaxation by Yogi Ashokananda.
‘Breath is not just vital for life – it is also the bridge between our body, our mind and our spirit.’
Fundamental to yoga and meditation practice, breath control (pranayama) is one of the first things I teach in class. Aside from its rejuvenating and re-energizing effects on the body, breathing consciously helps you to make room in your mind and remain calm and focused no matter what is happening around you. This chapter describes the physical and psychological benefits of pranayama and introduces you to breathing exercises that will connect you to your strong inner self – the power within.
The Importance of Breath
According to yogic tradition, the navel centre around our belly button is the source of our creation, but once we are born into the world our breath is the most fundamental part of our physical existence. Although we cannot normally see our breath, and most of the time we are not even aware of it, the functioning of our entire body and our mind depend on it.
Our breath can help us to understand the invisible, powerful force at work throughout the universe. Breath is something we share in common with every living being on earth, despite our different circumstances, different diets, different beliefs, different skin colours, different cultures, different countries, different occupations, different ethics, different paths of spirituality and so on.
Whether we are rich or poor, cruel or compassionate, materialistic or spiritual, the breath is food for our spirit and we can use it to create a sense of love, peace and harmony in ourselves and among others.
Breath is not just vital for life, it is also the bridge between our body and our mind and our spirit, between matter and form and non-matter and the formless.
Breath is our constant companion and is common to all living things. Yet in spite of the essential and familiar nature of our breath, few of us pay attention to our respiration unless there is a problem with it.
Learning to breathe properly, thereby boosting oxygen intake and maximizing the elimination of waste products, is one of the most powerful ways to reenergize the body, the mind and the emotions. Through the body and the mind, breath also feeds the spirit and we can use it to create a sense of love, peace and harmony within ourselves and between ourselves and other people.
Many of the imbalances that occur in our mind and body are affected and directed by our breath. It is also the case that our breath is affected by our mind, body functions, diet, posture, physical activity and environment. The breath is like a barometer, indicating our inner state, including our reactions to external events and surroundings: when we are in a tense situation we hold our breath;
when we are grief stricken or panicked we hyperventilate; when we are relaxed and resting, our breath flows freely. The ability to connect the mind and body with the breath and breathe naturally and evenly through any situation helps to maintain a sense of calm and equilibrium in our life.
I believe that the breath has great symbolic meaning: the inability to inhale fully represents a psychological or emotional obstruction and being unable to exhale fully and with ease means that it is hard to ‘let go’.
Any introduction to yoga, meditation or spirituality should begin with an awareness of the breath. This is the basic building block – as essential to yogic practice as it is to life, because the practice is there to reflect and support our life.
Meeting Your Breath
Many people spend an entire lifetime without being conscious of their breath or realizing that it is their body and mind’s best friend. The following practice introduces you to your breath and calms the nervous system as well as the muscles of the face and eyes. If done for an extended period, it can lead to a very deep state of meditation and clarity of mind.
It is especially good if you are very busy or suffer from stress or knee-jerk responses to events, helping you to re-engage with yourself and your environment.
1_ Sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair. Close your eyes and breathe gently so you do not strain your sinuses and there is no engagement of your facial muscles as you inhale and exhale.
2_Bring your awareness to your whole body, ignoring what is happening around you or whether someone is looking at you or not.
3_Keeping your mouth closed, focus on your inhalation and exhalation and notice your breath as it moves in and out of your nose. Bring your mind’s eye into your nostrils, feeling the touch of the breath on your nostril walls. As you inhale, embrace the sensation of your breath’s cooling touch and freshness. As you exhale, feel your breath’s warm touch inside your nostrils. Breathe comfortably for the length of your inhalation and exhalation, travelling with your breath from your nostrils to the root of your nose and back. Do not try to replicate the experience of an earlier breath or hold the memory for the next one.
4_Keep taking full breaths but slow down the speed at which you inhale and exhale, letting air enter your lungs gradually. Synchronize the speed of your breath with the awareness of your nostrils. Continue for 20 minutes.
In Vedic terms the lungs represent the seat of the soul. By not using their full capacity, you restrict the amount of prana you can take in. In psychological terms this means you are not fully engaging your soul or spirit. You are literally not living life to the full! This simple exercise allows you to take a complete breath, ensuring that every part of your lungs is filled with air. Breathing fully also makes you aware of your diaphragm, helps to regulate your breath, and restores rhythm to your breathing, to your mind and to the cyclical functions of your body. When the diaphragm is tense, it constricts blood flow and tightens the muscles around it, including internal and external muscles in the back, around the lungs and especially the heart muscle.
With regular practice you will gradually increase your lung capacity and feel the many benefits of breathing deeply. This exercise, which calms the nervous system and the mind, is especially good if you are stressed.
1_Sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair, keeping your spine erect and your eyes and mouth closed. Take your mind’s eye to your navel centre, your belly button. Gently move your attention to your mid-chest and then to your upper chest. Just become aware of these areas of your chest, the centre of your breathing.
2_Inhale for a count of nine on one inhalation, but separate this into three parts: for a count of three inhale into the navel; then inhale for a count of three filling the lower part of your lungs; and finish with a count of three into the upper lungs and chest, filling your lungs with air right to the top near your clavicle (collar bone).
3_As soon as you have completed your inhalation, begin exhaling for a count of nine on one exhalation: first empty the top of your chest for a count of three; then the bottom of your lungs for a count of three; and finally, when you reach the navel, exhale the last of the air for a count of three.
4_Repeat this pattern for 15 minutes and notice how it induces a sense of openness, ease and release.
The Power of Relaxation
£12.99, Available from Watkins Publishing
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