Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Art of Breathing

"Prana is the breath of life of all beings in the universe." ~ B.K.S. Iyenger

Eastern medicine has recognized the importance of correct breathing for centuries for physical, mental and spiritual development. All living things are filled with life force energy, or prana, at their core. Without this form of energy, life could not exist. Yet, we all take it for granted. We all breathe, so it makes sense to educate ourselves on how to breathe consciously, and therefore improve our lives. If we have to do it anyway, it seems like a pretty good place to start to me.

Many of us are shallow breathers. Some of us breathe from our stomach area in short breaths, and some of us from our chests. Shallow breathing allows about one third of the oxygen we actually need to fill our lungs. Correct breathing starts in the abdomen, then fills the lungs and chest causing the shoulders to rise slightly. Inhalation brings oxygen and creates energy in the body. Exhalation removes the impurities from the body creating the prana or life energy to expand.

According to B.K.S. Inyenger, author of Light on Pranayama (1987), "the practice of pranayama (or conscious breathing) induces the relaxation response and accompanying enhancement of the immune system". The more calm and relaxed we are, the more life force we maintain and develop. On the other hand, the more agitated or stressed we are, the more life energy remains outside of our bodies, which can possibly lead to illnesses. Yoga scholars believe that through correct breathing practices, prana increases and causes growth and development as positive mindset changes occur over time. What a great piece of news that is!

By simply becoming aware of our breathing and doing it consciously, we have already begun positive attitude change! Start by noticing first in what area of your body you breathe from first. Place your hand on on your belly just above your navel and notice as you inhale deeply whether your abdomen moves outward. Pay attention to how your chest moves and feels and if your shoulders rise slightly. Notice how fast you exhale and if it is steady in length and comfort to your deep inhale. Practice this a few times every day. Do not push it so that you feel lightheaded - it does take some practice. Remember, you have probably been breathing for quite awhile unconsciously. Take it a step at a time. Three to five deep breaths in the beginning is good. You can increase your deep breathing time as you grow more accustomed and comfortable with it. If at any time you feel lightheaded, tense, or uncomfortable physically or emotionally - stop immediately and resume your regular breathing pattern. Don't over do it.

To make the most of your breathing exercises, note the following tips:
1. Breathe through the nose - keep your mouth closed.
2. Breaths should be steady and even. Focus on inner quiet as your goal as you inhale and exhale.
3. Pause slightly between deep breaths.
4. Don't force the process. Breath is life force and is connected to your entire body system. Any agitated breathing is a sign of physical stress and time to stop.
5. Enjoy it! This is not work. You have been breathing since the day you were born. You now are just more aware of it.

"Pranayama practice has far-reaching, positive effects on physical, emotional, and mental well-being. it also encourages spiritual development. More specifically, mindful breathing practice:
- clears and calms the mind
- focuses attention
- develops concentration
- refreshes and renews the body
- improves metabolic function
- assists in cardiovascular function" ~ Michele Picozzi, Pocket Guide to Hatha Yoga, 1998