One of your greatest tools we have for transformation is our breath. Beyond simply focusing on the breath as a means of coming back to the present moment, you can practice changing your breathing patterns to effect change in your mind, emotions, and body.
Often times the mind becomes either sluggish or overactive on account of improper breathing. Learning healthy breathing habits is important as an ongoing moment-by-moment practice, as well as for deepening self-awareness. In addition to relearning how to breathe in a more healthy manner, there are many different teachings for breath control, which can allow you to have greater mastery over your mind, emotions, and body. The benefits of breathing practices are just as amazing as meditation; increased immune system functioning, circulation, nervous system functioning, heart health, cognitive functioning, and an increase in your overall sense of well-being. I highly suggest learning and implementing these daily breathing practices as a way to increase your energy, create greater mental clarity, focus, peace, and happiness.
While these teachings can be helpful, I would also suggest experimenting with different breathing patterns intuitively to see how the breath can change your state of being. When we take the time to experiment different techniques for ourselves, rather than simply following a technique step-by-step from another person or a book, we can have a much more powerful and direct learning experience. Your intuition knows the path back to wholeness, and will guide you appropriately when you hold the sincere intention to uncover more of who you are.
Deep, Slow Breathing
Deep and slow breathing from the diaphragm, in general, is the healthiest way to breathe. When you consciously slow down your breath, while still breathing deeply, you can quiet your mind, still your emotions, while remaining alert and present. Compare slow and deep breathing with the slow and shallow breathing that often accompanies meditation. Shallow meditative breathing can bring your mind and emotions to an even deeper level of stillness, but is also more likely to cause sleepiness, reducing your energy and alertness. This is not to say that the slow and shallow breathing that occurs during meditation is not effective, it is just different. Breathing slow and shallow can make you more aware of the subtler energies within you, allowing you to become more receptive for the deep stillness that pervades each moment. By taking deep and slow breaths, however, you can remain energized while also slowing and stilling the mind. This is useful as a practice for harmonizing your energy when you feel unbalanced in any way, and for when you are active out in the world. Breathing this way allows you to return to peace and calm, without losing your energy and vitality. I have found it very useful for resetting my mind and emotions, and for getting grounded while engaged in my daily activities.
The idea is to breath as deeply and slowly as you are able (this shouldn’t be forced), allowing your lower lungs to fill with air first. As you inhale, allow your belly to extend outward as your lower lungs fill with air. Once the lower lungs have been filled (about halfway through the inhalation), focus on allowing the mid and upper lungs to fill with air until your lungs have reached a comfortable capacity. As you exhale, allow the air to leave your lungs in the reverse order, beginning with the chest, and ending in the belly. Stay present with the exhalation until all the air has exited your lungs and your belly has retracted back towards your core. This breath can be compared to the tide of the ocean, and feels much like a wave of air coming in and out of your body in a rhythmic manner. Remember, this breath should not be forced, nor should it feel uncomfortable in any way. It may feel a bit awkward or unnatural at first, but over time it will become like second nature. Try it now….
If re-learning to breathe seems like a strange concept, remember that breathing slowly and deeply from the abdomen is actually the most natural way of breathing. It is only that most people have unconsciously adopted shallow chest breathing, which is why it may feel more “natural” in comparison. Deep and slow breathing from the abdomen allows the full capacity of your lungs to be reached as you breathe. This style of breathing also activates your parasympathetic nervous system, effectively calming your nerves and releasing neurotransmitters in the brain. It takes time, practice, and exploration to see how this style of breathing changes your experience for the better. I suggest practicing this throughout your day whenever you can remember, and particularly a few minutes before each meal.
Breath of Fire (Agni Pran)
Breath of fire is a yogic breathing technique for cultivating your energy and increasing mental alertness and physical energy. This is a wonderful breathing meditation to practice before or after your morning routine of yoga or stretching. Breath of fire invigorates, energizes, and stimulates the cells, tissue, and organs in your body, aiding in the natural processes of detoxification. The breathing technique is particularly good for increasing physical energy, mental clarity, focus, and emotional balance. The breathing pattern consists of quick rhythmic breaths through the nostrils, taking approximately 2-3 breaths per second.
To begin, sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight, your shoulders relaxed and dropped, and your body relaxed. On the exhalation (not inhalation) quickly contract your abdominal muscles in towards your spine, drawing your navel in and up towards your diaphragm. This contraction should rapidly push the air out of your lungs as you quickly exhale through your nose. On the inhalation, simply relax your muscles, allowing the air to naturally be drawn in through your nose and down into your lungs. Your inhalations and exhalations should be even and quick (2-3 breaths per second). Practice Breath of fire for 1-3 minutes as a time, being sure to take even inhalations and exhalations through the nose. Practice this breath throughout the day, particularly when you feel depleted in energy, sluggish, or unable to focus or concentrate.
Breath of fire should not be practiced during pregnancy or during menstruation. Breath of fire can cause some tingling or light-headedness to occur (on account of the increased oxygen flow), so be sure to stand up slowly following your practice. This breathing technique should not be practiced right before eating, and it is advised to wait 1-2 hours after a meal to practice. In addition to breath of fire, alternate nostril breathing (pranayama) is a wonderful technique for balancing energy, which will be addressed in the following section due to its unique effect on the brain.