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What do we do when we’re stressed out, angry, or anxious? We breathe. What do we do when we’re joyous and happy? We breathe. What do we do for our entirety of our lives while on this planet? We just breathe.
Unfortunately the vast majority of breathing is done without conscious thought. The rate and quality of our breath is a fairly accurate indicator of our emotional state. The breath is a powerful tool we can use to support and mold feelings of well-being – or not. So even if most of our breathing is done unconsciously, the good news is that we can bring mindfulness to the breath, to shift and uplift our mood and enrich our experience.
In Kundalini Yoga, Yogi Bhajan taught us that the mind will follow the breath and the body will follow the mind. When we control and guide the breath consciously, we establish and maintain command of the mind, and thus the body. Basically, the breath is in charge.
In charge of what, you may ask?
In charge of how we relate to and respond to our bodies, our circumstances, and the environment around us. We have the power to create our emotional states, or at least support them, simply by how we breathe. For example, fast, shallow breath can foster panic or anger in the mind and body, whereas slow, deep, steady breath can promote serenity of body and mind.
Proper breath is the foundation for life, and the key to access to both body and mind. Stress in our bodies can cause dysfunctional, even paradoxical, breathing patterns, including shallow, erratic, fast-rate, and upper chest breathing, leading to chronic tension and weakness. Holding tension and emotional trauma in the muscular system creates rigidity and a defensive reflex response in the body. Proper breathing may release this rigidity, opening the body to health, vitality, and increased concentration.
The typical adult human breathes at a rate of 16-20 cycles per minute. By consciously working with and slowing down the rate of breath, positive changes occur in the body and mind. For example, by slowing one’s breath rate down to 8 cycles per minute, healing, stress relief, relaxation, and mental awareness are all increased. Slowing the breath down to 4 cycles per minute adds increased mental function and sensitivity to the list of benefits. This 4 cycle breath rate can easily be accomplished by inhaling for 5 seconds, suspending the breath for 5 seconds, and exhaling for 5 seconds. Each breath should be complete and not rushed.
A full yogic breath is helpful for creating calm and healing. This may be done comfortably, either sitting up or lying down.
Allow yourself to observe the breath coming in and out through the nose, without effort, just focus. Breathing through the nose is important because the air coming in is cleansed and hydrated through the nose. As you observe your breath, slowly shift your attention to your belly, and as you inhale, bring the breath down to the navel, gently expanding your belly. Release the breath, letting all of the air go. Make sure you exhale completely before taking a fresh breath, and inhale fully. As you inhale again, slowly expand the belly, and bring that expansion up, filling the lower lobes of the lungs. Exhale completely. This time expand the breath even further, creating a 3 part wave. Inhale, and as the wave swells in your belly, draw it up and expand the lower lobes of the lungs, finally bringing it all the way up through the lungs to the collarbone. Release the breath from the collarbone, down through the lungs, lastly letting the navel fall gently toward the spine as all the air is expelled. Continue inhaling and exhaling in this 3 part wave for 3 to 11 minutes. If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, ease up a bit, as this may be a totally new approach to the breath. This should not be forced, but allowed to flow.
This is a beautiful practice. And, it’s just that – practice. When you take time to practice breathing properly, consciously, this technique will be accessible to you when you’re out in the so-called “real world.” This practice is a powerful form of meditation. Typically, yogis don’t go around breathing with a full 3 part yogic breath all day long, but rather know how to breathe properly, and have a daily meditative practice. Practice creates the ability to call upon on the breath to help us take action in the world, instead of reacting, helping us to stay in command of the body and thereby the mind.
For a further calming and balancing effect, you can try this full breath while breathing through the left nostril only. Again, sit or lie down comfortably, then plug the right nostril with the right thumb and begin inhaling and exhaling only through the left nostril. If you find that the left nostril is a little too blocked, just do the best you can.
A fun fact about the nostrils; our nostrils automatically switch predominate sides approximately every 2 ½ to 3 hours in order to maintain balance in the brain. This predominance can get stuck on one side (so to speak) but, for balance, we need both. The left nostril stimulates the feminine energy, cooling and calming the body, while the right stimulates the masculine energy, warming and energizing the body. A radically simple explanation is that right nostril predominance enhances alertness and focus, and left nostril predominance enhances relaxation and even promotes sleep. The breath and our body are full of little secrets that, when uncovered, can assist us in reaching our desired or full potential.
The bottom line, breath is essential for life, but mindful, conscious breath can improve the quality of life. Proper breath contributes to increased wellbeing, balance, and stability of body and mind. The breath is all you have, at every moment – so be present! Open yourself to the powerful possibility of your breath.
For more information on Kundalini Yoga, visit www.3HO.org.
Patty Wildassin has been teaching kundalini yoga and meditation for many years, and is writing a series of articles about her spiritual practice for Painted Brain News