In the work of pranayama, the back is the blackboard, the air comes to write and the mind holds the chalk.— B.K.S. Iyengar
What is more fundamental to life than breath itself? We do it without as much as a thought, but without it, we would not survive. I recently went to a wellness conference, where I sat in an excellent seminar about stress reduction. The moderator posed a question: "What is the most effective way to calm your body and clear your mind?" The audience replied "breath" so clearly it was as if they were confirming a life-affirming secret.
Echoed by all moderators at the conference is the fact that the mind and body are in no way separate entities. As I see it now, the mind and body form an unending loop—they speak to each other like two people whispering back and forth in a crowded room. They are so interwoven they can even fool each other into getting what they want. If you smile, your body will feel happy physiologically, even if your mind isn't convinced that you are. And if you breathe deeply, your body and mind will go into a relaxed state, even when stress is crowding in on your life.
As the animating force that expands our capacity for living, breathing is fundamental to the concept of mind/body integration. Once we learn how to control the breath, we know how to control the state of our mind, body and emotions—a pretty powerful concept all around. In the language of yoga, the word for this is pranayama. "Prana" means breath, or life force, and "ayama" means control. Pranayama is rhythmic breath control.
Yoga practitioners believe that with more prana, with increased life force, the more alert and energetic we become. As Jacine Harrington writes in The Beauty of Yoga, with more prana,
"You can think more clearly. Your body is more relaxed, your mind calm. You have a heightened sense of awareness of who you are and a stronger connection between your mind, body and emotions. You are more in tune with your inner self and your higher self. You hear your inner voices and messages more clearly."
I collected a few breath control exercises from The Beauty of Yoga, one of Llewellyn's popular yoga books, to encourage the use of pranayama on a regular basis. Embodying this technique will unify your mind and body and allow you to create an inner refuge where your spirit feels at home.
- Abdominal Breath
The purpose of this breathing exercise is to further relax your body and release negative feelings trapped inside your body. Reclaim the natural rhythm of your breath. Feel it. You are unique. Listen to your own body to find its unique rhythm of breathing. As you focus on Abdominal Breath, feel your abdominal cavity being worked, releasing stress in the body.
- Lie in Relaxation Posture and breathe through your nostrils. Focus your attention on your abdomen, and when you inhale, fill your abdomen up like a balloon, bringing in oxygen.
- When you exhale, squeeze your abdomen into your spine. Press your abdominal muscles and lower back into the floor, squeezing all the air out. The next breath becomes deeper.
- As you focus on Abdominal Breath, your body becomes more and more relaxed. Consciously walk your shoulders down from your ears and continue to breathe. Allow your breath to be smooth and even. Breathe in and out, continuing the Abdominal Breath for ten more breaths.
- Polarity Breath
- Lie on your back in Relaxation Posture. Focus your attention on the bottom of your right foot. When you inhale, breathe in as if breathing through the bottom of that foot. Shift your consciousness to the palm of your left hand. When you exhale, exhale as if exhaling through the palm of your left hand. Continue this for five breaths, inhaling from the bottom of your right foot, exhaling through the palm of your left hand.
- On your next inhalation, shift your consciousness to the bottom of your left foot. Draw in your breath from the bottom of your left foot and exhale through the palm of your right hand. As you continue, allow your lips to part and your jaw to open. Your entire body is relaxed. Continue this for five more breaths.
- On your next breath, breathe in through the bottoms of both feet, and exhale through the palms of both hands. Continue breathing this way for five more breaths.
- On your next breath, continue breathing in from the bottoms of your feet, drawing the breath all the way up your spine and out through the top of your head. Feel the breath leaving the top of your head, allowing any tension to leave the body. Continue exhaling through the top of your head for five more breaths.
- On your next breath, lift your hands over your head and stretch your body. Make noises and sounds. Your body likes to release through sound. Twist and turn. Feel the energy release any deeper tension.
- Complete Breath
The Complete Breath is designed to increase the air capacity of your lungs. Pushing your hands into your knees allows the chest and lungs to open further so that more air can be taken in. Breathe slowly to help the lungs expand fully yet gently. Slowly exhale as you roll your head and upper body down, completely emptying your body of air.
- Sit comfortably with your legs crossed in front of you. Place the palms of your hands on your knees. Adjust any part of your body that needs adjusting, ensuring that your spine is straight to allow energy flow through the spine.
- Inhale and drop your chin to your chest, slowly rolling your head and shoulders down along with your spine. Exhale and squeeze the oxygen out of your abdomen.
- On your next inhalation, begin lifting the upper body slowly, filling your chest and abdomen with air as you inhale. Push your hands into your knees to help straighten your body more, opening the lungs and chest area further so that they may be filled with more air.
- Slowly exhale once again as you roll your head and upper body down, completely emptying your body of air. This is one complete cycle.
- Continue this breath for five complete cycles of inhaling and exhaling.