10 Feb Just Breathe! Breathing Exercises to Calm the Mind
The Power of Breath
It may seem a bit silly to think about the way we breathe since it is automatically regulated in our body. Our lives are so busy and minds so full, why bother adding something else to think abot?
In my previous post, we explored the power of the breath and the benefits of conscious breathing and more specifically, extended exhalations. Here, we delve deeper into the breath and offer some simple, yet very effective breathing exercises. These exercises also known as pranayamas are used throughout yoga, meditations, and Ayurveda that encourage healthy mind and body and can easily be incorporated into your daily life so that you can reach optimal health.
Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit terms of prana meaning the vital energy or force that sustains all life and yama meaning to control, extend, or regulate. Therefore, pranayama is to regulate this universal life force through various parameters including frequency, depth, or inspiration/expiration ratio which were discovered by ancient sages and yogic masters in India. Prana flows through our thousands of ‘nadis’, or energy channels and ‘chakras’ which are our energy centers within the body. The quality and quantity of prana can have significant impacts on autonomic and central nervous system (1) activities that in turn directly influence our state of mind as well as mental and physical health. High prana can reduce symptoms anxiety, depression, or anger instead increasing relaxation, comfort, and happiness.
This source of life comes from the very basics of that which we need to survive such as food, sleep, and most importantly, breath. Positive prana (2) is transferred from nature’s fresh raw organic foods and typically high prana is a result of a plant-based or vegetarian diet since meat is considered low prana or even negative prana because it is no longer living. Other low prana foods include foods with caffeine, sugar, and fats. However, prana would not be possible without the breath and that is the true power of the breath, that which brings life.
The breath brings us back to the present moment, increasing quality of life and self-awareness resulting in a calming a positive mental state. Pranayama works to take that awareness to the next level. Once that awareness is cultivated, one can work to control the breath. If one controls the breath, then one can control the mind resulting in mental, emotional, and physical advantages.
These benefits range from stress relief, greater self-awareness, mood stabilization, improved mental clarity, focus, and attention, increased energy, weight loss, and even the deceleration of the aging process depending on which breathing technique is in practice habitually.
Some popular breathing practices can be found below:
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
Nadi Shodhana (3) also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing is a great exercise for those who wish to quiet their mind, center themselves, or reduce stress. This technique works by cleansing the nadis and smoothing the flow of prana whilst maintaining body temperature. In turn, it can improve cardiovascular and lung function, lower heart rate and improve respiratory endurance. It also creates harmony (4) between the left and right hemispheres of our brain which are responsible for logic and emotion.
Find a comfortable sitting position, relax your shoulders, hips, and jaw. Allow your spine to resort to its natural curvature. Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
(Meditation Tip: closing your eyes sometimes allows thoughts to run amok. Instead, some yogic masters recommend softening the gaze to the tip of the nose or focusing on a non-moving object, or drishti. This allows for greater presence and ability to unite the nature of the mind or nondual state into the duality of this world.)
Place your left hand to rest on your knee with palms face up to receive energy or in Chin Mudra, connecting your index finger to thumb. Press the tip of your right index finger and thumb gently to your third eye center, the space between your eyebrows. Allow your ring and pinky finger to come to the left nostril, leaving your thumb on your right nostril. Exhale any stale air, close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Then, close the left nostril and exhale through the right. Now, inhale through the right nostril and exhale on the left. These two rounds of breath are one cycle of Nadi Shodhana.Continue for up to 5 minutes. Always end the cycle with an exhale on the left and remember to inhale through the same nostril that you just exhaled from.
Ujjayi or Ujjai Pranayama
Ujjayi Pranayama (5) is commonly known as the “breath of victory” or “oceanic breath”. It works to internally create heat or tapas in the body through the constriction of the breath in the back of the throat. It has been used for thousands of years to enhance hatha and vinyasa yoga helping to create and maintain rhythm in the practice. It has also been adopted by Olympic athletes to enhance performance and increase respiratory efficiency. Some benefits (6) of this pranayama includes: relieves tension, builds energy, and detoxifies the mind and body. Rather than, being in an active seat like Nadi Shodhana, Ujjayi allows the practitioner to be moving. This breath is especially helpful when one is nervous, agitated, or stressed as it settles and balances the mind almost immediately.
Start with a few deep inhales through your nose and long, deep, audible exhales through the mouth that create an “hahhh” sound like you would to clean eyeglasses. This will let out any air that no longer serves you and allow a clean base to start your practice. Once your lungs are emptied completely, continue to inhale through your nose but instead of exhaling through your mouth, seal your lips and exhale through your nose this time. The exhale should remain audible attempting a similar sound to the waves of the ocean. Once this is established, work towards making the same sound with your inhales and continue with this breath as long as it serves you.
Are these safe?
Yes, these practices are safe for most people. However, one should consult a doctor or seek professional guidance if they have any medical conditions related to the heart or lungs. Additionally, if one experiences any adverse effects like light-headedness, dizziness, or nausea as well as agitation then one should stop immediately. One should also avoid these exercises if sick. These pranayama exercises are all also best practiced on an empty stomach and should be practiced regularly to see and maintain results.
Pranayamas are a form of purification and an ancient detoxifying technique. Controlling the breath teaches you to slow down, regain power over your thoughts, and ultimately take control your life. These breathing exercises can make meditation more accessible for those who struggle with the expectations and stillness of meditation. Breath now may not only sustain your life but change it. Whether you need to reduce stress, find clarity, or gain energy there is a breathing practice for just that!