Sustainable Health Nutshell: The breath is the simplest tool you have to increase your physical, mental, energetic, and emotional health. Try some of these exercises to learn more about your own body, breath, and energy.
Why is breathing so important? In yoga practices, the breath is an observable aspect of Prana, or energy, but prana is more thoroughly defined as the ‘breath of life’ or ‘energy of life.’ It includes all flows, seen and unseen, such as blood circulation, digestion, and nervous system flow as well as flow of creative thought, emotion, and energy through acupuncture meridians. Even things that don’t ‘breathe’ have prana- rocks, water, and the air itself, and all prana affects all other prana. The best example of this is that a huge amount of herbal medicine deals with the ‘life energy’ of plants and how to change human energy that is diseased by using healthy plant energy. Improving your breathing and learning about it can do wonders for many aspects of your health- let me know what you think of these exercises. (They are marked with *** to make sure you find all 6 to try!)
Breathing deeply and slowly moves the large diaphragm as well as the lower pelvic diaphragm, and improves lymph flow and digestion, which together improve total health remarkably. Try breathing consciously throughout your day to improve oxygenation, and use the two following practices for a few weeks and see how your fitness improves.
*** 1) While sitting to work or relax, try getting up every 15 minutes or so to walk and stretch, and when you think of it, take a deep slow breath, with even counts of several seconds in and out, filling up your abdomen first and your upper chest last.
*** 2) While walking, hiking, or running (other rhythmic exercise may work as well, but these are the easiest to start with), try inhaling through your nose for 4 steps and exhaling through your nose for 4 steps. If this is easy at your current pace, increase to 8 steps in and out. Go up to 20 if you can. Breathe in deeply, all the way into your abdomen, and fill up your upper chest last, keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed. See how your breathing speed needs to change with increases in pace or hill grade, and how you can extend your breaths by slowing down. First, slow your usual workout pace to work on increasing your breathing depth and slowness, then increase your pace while keeping your breathing slow and deep. You’ll find you are less fatigued after a workout, more energized, and after a while able you may be able to work out longer and with less injury.
Several meditation traditions use the breath as a focus or point of concentration to help settle the mind. The Anapana portion of Vipassana training is a good example of this. *** Try the following for 7 days and see how you feel. Before breakfast and dinner, spend 5 minutes calming the body with Nadi Shodhana or Nadisuddhi (= alternate nostril breathing) (my simple video is here) followed by 5 minutes of breath observation in this manner: Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and intend to simply observe. Watch the air go in and out, feel the temperature of the air in and out, notice the moisture, or whether one nostril is more open than the other, feel the breath on your upper lip, in your sinuses, and down your throat. Notice if the breath is fast or slow, and if it changes when thoughts or emotions arise. With each thought, emotion, or sensation, observe how your mind automatically judges each thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ When you realize you are no longer sensing your breathing, return to observation. This is the most basic form of meditation, which uses concentration on a physical sensation to calm the mind and learn non-judgement. This is not the easiest form! But it is safe and something anyone can try. Twice a day, 5 minutes at a time is a nice beginning practice. Let me know your results and what issues and resistances arise for you, for they can be very helpful in learning compassion for yourself. How you respond to this type of meditation can lead you in a direction of learning other forms as well, so please ask questions if you like.
Next time you’re feeling a powerful emotion, notice your posture and breathing. Our response to emotion is physical as well as energetic and emotional, so many types of emotional reactions can be understood and helped to shift by gently changing our posture and breathing. Over time, the body can store stress unconsciously, which can contribute to blocked energy flows and ill health. To help with this on an emotional level, try the following two simple exercises.
*** 1) When anxiety arises, notice your breathing and see if you can slow it down (even a tiny bit!) and deepen your breaths into your abdomen instead of your upper chest. Count seconds and see if you can make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. Straighten your posture and close your eyes to focus on your breathing. Sit or stand with your back against something sturdy like a wall or tree trunk, and press your shoulderblades into the wall as you breathe slowly and relax your neck and head back towards the wall.
*** 2) When anger arises, first remove yourself from the object of your anger to give yourself time. Notice your breathing and see if you can create slower even breaths, the same number of seconds in and out. Place your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your belly. Let the anger shift and subside as you continue to breathe. As it subsides, clearer thought will return regarding the situation you just put on pause, and an ability to intend non-violent resolution may become easier over time.
Learning about your own subtle energy is fun and can also give great insight into any health issues, especially recurrent or persistent ones. Western medicine uses things like biofeedback to teach how breathing affects and is affected by relaxation, blood pressure, and heart rate as well as mental and emotional stability. In many different branches of eastern medicine, breathing practices are used as a tool for healing, and some are very powerful (a teacher is always recommended since these practices have physical side effects- especially if you have health problems, so please be gentle and mindful and consult your physician). Pranayama (‘extension’ or ‘drawing out’ of the life energy) is a group of practices that help you understand your breath (and energy) flows, and how controlling the breath and observing changes in your own energy can teach you about your own system. Qi Gong is one of the most structured and gentle practices, and finding a teacher is definitely recommended.
*** I teach something called the Healing Breath (a shortened version is in video format here), which can be used to relax the body, but also can be used to clear out negative energy. Once sufficiently clear and able to feel a sensation of heat in the lower abdomen (the location of the lower dan tien in Chinese medicine or the 2nd chakra in Ayurveda), healing energy can be sent to different parts of the body, or even to the hands to encourage healing in others. To use this breathing activity in that way, take a slow breath into the abdomen for 7 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and breathe out slowly for 12 seconds- keep this rhythm going for 5 minutes. On the in breath, picture clear positive energy flowing into your energy system, and on the out breath, picture any negative or unhealthy energy swirling in your lower abdomen then returning to the earth. Once you feel more clarity and joy present, and possibly heat in the lower abdomen, intend for the clear healing energy now swirling around to be moved on your out breath to your hands. Allow the sensation to grow. After practicing this for a good while, see if you can send the healing energy to other parts of your own body. Expecting results creates resistance, so just practice and see how you feel, have fun with it, and above all be gentle and don’t practice for too long at a time. Enjoy!