Living Your Best Life
The Power of Mindful Breathing
Pranayama, which literally means “to extend the vital life force,” or prana, is an incredibly rich practice made up of many breathing techniques that vary in complexity from ones simple enough for a child to do to those appropriate for advanced practitioners. While the best way to practice pranayama is under the guidance of an experienced teacher, there are simple techniques- such as gentle diaphragmatic breathing and comfortably lengthening the exhalation- that can be used at any time to transform not only your breath but also your state of mind immediately.
Mindful breathing has the power to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to reset and rejuvenate your brain. This one, simple choice has the power to activate and repair all healing function in your body, reduce stress and anxiety; promote restful sleep; ease pain; increase attention and focus; and, on a subtler level, help people connect to a calm, quiet place within so that they experience greater clarity and well-being on every level.
Most people’s unconscious breathing patterns are anything but easeful and smooth; they tend to be tense, shallow and erratic. When we are afraid or hear bad news, we often gasp- inhaling and then hold the breath which tells the brain and body we are stressed. These breathing patterns can activate the sympathetic nervous system (often referred to as the “fight or flight response”). Once activated the body is not ready to relax, digest, focus, heal or repair itself-its activated to “survive.”
Only when we are relaxed, safe, and at ease is our breath able to slow down and deepen with long steady exhalations with controlled pauses. The body knows the truth from our breath- you are “safe” or “unsafe.”
Pranayama is a vital tool to help relax the breath and body and get you to the state of more focused concentration, leading you to clearer perception, a greater connection with you, and ultimately a more fulfilled life. In other words, through the practice of mindful breathing, you can reduce all the mental noise- the agitation, distractions, and self-doubt- that prevents you from connecting and healing.
There are many effective patterns and practices for Mindful Breathing. None are “optimal.” Just the best choice for YOU on a given day. Enjoy trying a variety of options to find what resonates with you.
2 Practices to Get You Started
Begin with “Box Breathing” otherwise known as Sama Vritti Pranayama in Yoga. Gently close your eyes and inhale to a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, exhale slowly for a count of 4, then wait for a count of 4 before inhaling again. While practicing this breath mindfully and gently notice your body without any judgment. Are you holding tension anywhere, what muscles are starting to naturally relax and can you surrender to the breath? Try the practice for 6 to 12 rounds.
Another breathing exercise to try is the Long Exhale. Gently close your eyes and inhale to a count of 4, hold your breath for 4, and then exhale slowly and steadily for a count of 8. While breathing notice the quality of your breath. Does the breath feel tense? Strained? Uneven? Shallow? Simply observe without any judgement and continue for 8 to 12 rounds.
Try each practice daily for a week and observe how it affects your body, breath, and mind in order to figure out which is serving you. You can do them at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal. And remember to be kind, patient and gentle with yourself and breathing.