We breathe 23,000 times a day – up to 4,500 gallons of air. But how often do we take a moment to simply bring our attention to our breath, and to observe the breath as it travels in and out of the body? Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware that the simple act of breathing deeply can have a profound effect on both the physical and the emotional body.
The Sanskrit word for “breath” is prana, which can be described as “life force energy”. Thus prana can be translated as “the breath of life.” This is essentially the same meaning as Qi (or vital energy) in Traditional Chinese Medicine. (For more on Prana/Qi and the way energy moves, visit my past blog). Breath has an immediate impact on the flow of prana/Qi through the body.
Shallow (chest) breathing cuts us off from prana – and it deeply depletes the life force energy in the body. It also increases stress, blood sugar levels, increases our perception of pain, decreases oxygen to the heart and brain, inhibits the flow of oxygen, and increases our sense of fatigue. On the other hand, mindful, deep breathing can help lower cortisol levels, decrease the heart rate, enhance relaxation, increase blood flow, and reduce pain. On a mental and emotional level, the mind influences how we breathe and, conversely, the breath influences how we think. When we are upset or stressed, our breathing rate naturally increases but when we are relaxed, the rate of respiration decreases.
Thousands of years ago, the masters of Yoga realized that the breath is the “missing link” between the body and mind. Yogis describe the breath as lying precisely at the boundary between the body and the mind. It’s the bridge between the energetic body and the emotional body. It’s a direct link to some aspects of our inner mood. Breath connects the inside of the body with the outside world, taking the outside world in and expelling the inside world out. Mindful, deep breathing also regulates, balances, opens, controls, and channels the flow of prana in the body. And amazingly, breathing deeply (yogic breathing) increases the amount of air we take in to our lungs by up to 600%!
Many people make the mistake of turning to breathing practices only when they are already in crisis or completely stressed out. This seldom works. You must learn to make a habit of breathing every day, even when you are not feeling particularly vulnerable or stressed. Take the time each day to check in with your breath and your body, and work towards spending time on breathing exercises. Andrew Weil, has three very easy breathing exercises to help relax and reduce stress that you can try at home: The Stimulating Breath, The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise (also called the Relaxing Breath), and Breath Counting.
“Every breath can be a practice. With the inhalation, imagine drawing in pure, cleansing, relaxing energies. And with the exhalation, imagine expelling all obstacles, stress, and negative emotions. This is not something that requires a particular place to sit. It can be done when in the car on the way to work, waiting for a stop light, sitting in front of the computer, preparing a meal, cleaning the house, or walking.” ~ Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche