• Gayle Fleming

Connecting to the Wisdom of Your Breath

Breathing is so basic, right? You don’t have to think about it. Your body does it automatically. And that’s a good thing because if we actually had to think about breathing—well a lot of us wouldn’t last long. Learning to breathe more consciously can it be incredibly powerful. This is why I like to call the breath your built-in tranquilizer. I’m sure that you have been told some time in your life to “take a deep breath” when you have been upset, frightened, or angry. There seems to be an intrinsic understanding that breathing deeply is somehow calming.

The fact is, however, that most of us breathe quite shallowly and quickly. Most of us hold our breath more than we realize at times when we are rushing, concentrating, feeling pressured, etc. In other words, our sympathetic nervous system is often at play when it shouldn’t be, causing our nervous system to be in fight or flight mode when it really isn’t necessary. It may come as a surprise then to know that simply learning to breathe consciously can relieve a great deal of stress and anxiety and allow us to function more productively and with more ease.

If you take or have taken a yoga class you have more than likely had a teacher who told you to remember to breathe—to take deep inhalations and exhalations as you perform yoga poses. But how often do you translate this reminder into your daily life? If you can learn to do this—remember to breathe deeply and consciously when you are feeling rushed, anxious, stressed, angry, etc., you will develop a life-long superpower.

The ancient yogis, without the benefit of today’s scientific understanding, understood the importance of the breath as a conduit for what they called the life force. Prana is the Sanskrit word for this life force or energy that is associated with breathing but is much more subtle. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as breath control but is more appropriately an expansion or extension of the breath. There are many, many pranayama techniques in the Yogic tradition. But simply becoming acutely aware of one’s breath and learning to breathe consciously and deeply has profound benefits.

The first step to taking advantage of the benefits of conscious breathing is to begin to really notice your breath throughout the day. For the next few days pay attention to how often you find yourself holding your breath or breathing shallowly. Now, fortunately, your body will only allow you to hold your breath for so long. Humans can live for up to 50 days without food, 14 days without water, but only about 5 minutes without breathing.

Begin to practice deep belly breathing. Many people habitually breathe primarily from their upper chest, taking much shorter breaths which means the lungs do not expand fully. So sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight, flight, or freeze response, remains on high alert. Place your hands on your low belly below your navel with your middle fingers touching. Now inhale into your belly until the middle fingers move apart. Then exhale until they touch again. Do this ten times. Practice this every day for at least a week. If you can, practice it two or three times a day. Remember the belly should expand when you inhale and contract when you exhale. Many people suck their bellies in when they inhale which is the exact opposite of how we should breathe.

In Yoga, one of the most important things to learn is to be aware. So when you notice or become aware that you are feeling anxious or stressed and then remember to take a couple of minutes to do some deep belly breathing, that is yoga.