We all understand the importance of breathing to take oxygen into our bodies, but did you know that your breath is a direct link to the mind and emotions? Take a moment right now to close your eyes and notice the qualities of your breath... Are you breathing into your abdomen or your upper chest? Is your breath ebbing and flowing fluidly, or is it choppy and restrained? Is is deep and full or shallow and unsatisfying? Are you holding your breath in and not fully exhaling?
Taking note of these qualities exhibited by your breath at any given moment of your day can clue you in to the status of your mind and emotions, or what I like to call the "inner landscape".
When under stress we tend to breathe less deeply, in a more staccato rhythm, holding on to the breath by not releasing fully when we exhale. This has repurcussions for the whole body, impacting the central nervous system, cardiovascular function and the digestion. Can you see why the phrase "take a deep breath" is so commonplace these days? It's simple and cliche, but it's fantastic advice.
Here's the good news. There is a significant advantage to this relationship between your breath and inner landscape: it works in both directions. Your breath can be a barometer for your level of stress and emotion, and you can use your breath to effect your mind and emotions as well. Learning to breathe properly can be a natural stress-reliever, soothing the mind and calming emotions. Once you have that down, you can begin to enjoy the countless benefits of more advanced breathing techniques.
Pranayama, or expansion of life force and 1 of the 8 limbs of Yoga, is a collection of numerous breath exercises and techniques providing the practitioner benefits of everything from calming a chatty mind in preparation for sleep, to cooling the body and emotions when the heat of summer or the fire of anger have got you all hot around the collar. Additionally, one of the added benefits of practicing pranayama is that it prepares the mind for meditation. Many seated meditation practitioners begin their daily practice with breathing exercises to rein in restless thoughts and invoke the qualities of the meditative mind: tranquillity, awareness, and focus.
Some pranayama breathing exercises can be learned from books and articles while more advanced techniques should be acquired under the personalized instruction of a teacher.
Angelle has been teaching Portland's only weekly Pranayama class for the past year at Mandala Yoga on SE Belmont. (See the yoga page above for schedule.) She is also available for both private and group instruction.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!