From the moment we open our eyes upon waking, to the moment we sleep, we are engaging with the world in a variety of ways that can change the rate of our heart beat and pace of breathing.
Have you ever noticed when you get really excited, nervous, or stressed your heart rate increases, you feel warmer, and you begin to breathe and talk faster?
Alternatively, have you ever noticed if you’re sad, feeling lonely, depressed, you feel colder, you move more slowly, and overall slow down?
Our breath is automatic. If you are living, you are breathing. Since you took your first breath when you were born until this moment now, you have been breathing. Of course, there may be some who have experienced medical situations where their breath may have stopped, but if you are here now reading this, you are breathing.
While we do not have to tell our bodies to breathe every second of the day, we can breathe purposefully and mindfully. We can control and even retain our own breath.
Our breath is constantly communicating to us exactly what our body is experiencing and by attuning ourselves to our breath we can know exactly what our bodies need in any given moment.
This is where breath practices come in.
We practice breathing so we can experience a more quality breath. The quality of your life and your life experiences are directly related to the quality of your breath.
Mindful breathing is the cornerstone to every yoga practice. The shapes and “poses” we create in a yoga asana practice are opportunities that allow us to experience our breath while our bodies are in different shapes - some active shapes, some passive shapes. Each shape we create has a physical benefit, but the shape without mindful breathing is just stretching. Breathing on purpose during our movement or stillness practice is what makes it yoga.
So what do yoga breathing, yoga postures, and life have in common?
Our rate of respiration impacts every cell in our body. It impacts our brain, organs, and muscles. How you breathe has a direct effect on how you feel in your body.
Here are three simple and most commonly used breath practices. You can find these in yoga settings, medical or therapeutic settings, and even practiced by athletes to improve their performance.
Mindful breathing is simply the observance of your own breath.
There are a few strategies you can use to explore mindful breathing.
The first being as simple as when you breathe in, you mentally state to yourself, “I am breathing in.” Then as you breathe out, you mentally state to yourself “I am breathing out.”
Close your eyes and try this for a few moments to see how you feel in your body after this practice of making a conscious mental note that you are breathing.
The second strategy you can explore is by way of sensation.
Sitting with your eyes closed, notice the space just beneath your nose and above your upper lip. Notice if you can detect the faint sensation of your breath moving along the skin here. If you are struggling with noticing the sensations, dip your finger in a little bit of water and wipe your damp finger above your upper lip. Alternatively, you may scratch once or twice gently above your upper lip so you can feel a little sensation there. Resume stillness and draw all of your mental attention to breathing. Notice your breath temperature as you breathe out and notice your breath temperature as you breathe in. Continue noticing the sensations of your breath on your skin, even as it swirls within each of your nostrils.
Try this simple practice for a few moments with your eyes closed and take note of how you feel after.
Sometimes called a 3 part breath, belly breathing brings awareness to how much space we actually have in our bodies to breathe.
While in a comfortable position, bring your left hand to your heart and your right hand to your belly.
Imagine your body like the shape of a glass with a top, a middle, and a bottom.
With your eyes closed begin to breathe in through your nose and feel your belly begin to fill and expand as you draw your breath inward. Notice how your chest and ribs begin to fill and move, then all the way up towards your chest, heart, and shoulders. As you breathe out slowly, notice how your shoulders soften, your ribs soften and your low belly softens. Breathe in again, slowly, filling up, drawing your attention again towards your right hand (the bottom), your ribs (the middle), and your chest, breathing all the way up towards your shoulders (the top). Breathe out and soften from the top, to the middle, to the bottom.
Repeat this pattern and try this practice then make note of how you feel afterwards.
Using a similar strategy as above, we can practice diaphragmatic breathing to bring more attention to the dimensions of our breath. In diaphragmatic breathing practice, our exhale is longer than the inhale.
Diaphragmatic breathing adds a layer of complexity to our experience by counting our in-breath to intentionally make it long, wide, and more expansive; and counting our out-breath to make it longer, allowing our bodies to really soften, down to a pinpoint while your diaphragm draws up and in naturally wringing out all the breath to create room for more breath movement with your next inhale.
With your eyes closed begin to draw all of your awareness towards your breath. Notice your breath in. Notice your breath out. Allow your breath to fill you completely, starting at your low belly, up through your rib cage, your sternum, shoulder blades, then allow your breath to flow gently out of your nose, soften your shoulders, ribs, and low belly.
With this next breath in, count mentally, slowly and steadily. Inhale, 2, 3, 4, take your breath up towards your head. Exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Soften completely through your waist and hips.
Keep with this counted breath for a few minutes and make a note of how this breath practice makes you feel afterwards.
In summary, there are many breath practices you can try and may be introduced to in yoga, medical, clinical, and even athletic settings.
These three introductory breath practices are a good start for you to try a simple practice designed to provide feelings of ease during times that might take your breath away.