Holding Your Breath

Pranayama Benefits for Physical and Emotional Health

Stop whatever you are doing and take a moment to just notice your breath. Don’t worry about changing it, just observe how you breath when you aren’t paying attention. What is your breath like? For me, at pretty much any given moment unless I’m doing yoga, my breath is painfully shallow. Often I’ll notice that I’ve actually been holding my breath! I particularly notice this tendency when I’m feeling anxious.

For most of my life, I never thought about breathing at all. Breathing is unconscious, it’s a reflex, our bodies are taking care of that for us. These are the things I remember learning when I was growing up. Without yoga, I never would have learned the power that is held inside of my breath. I had no idea that we had the ability to retrain ourselves to have more beneficial breathing patterns or that the breath had any significance besides keeping us alive.

Society tells us that we need all of these magic fixes for our depression, anxiety, fatigue, etc. We medicate and distract ourselves, doing anything to avoid the signals our bodies are sending us. We are never taught how to value and honor our breath for the miracle that it is. In my opinion, pranayama (breathwork) is one of the most advanced aspects of yoga and also the most important.

Living in a world of excess, it seems impossible that there could be so many life changing benefits from something as simple as breathing. Yet there is a breathwork practice for anything that you may want to achieve. Through the power of our breath we can energize ourselves, we can calm our nervous systems, we can elevate our mood, we can cool ourselves down, warm ourselves up, we can even experience altered states of consciousness! And we can do all of this for free, regardless of where we are, regardless of who we are. If you’re living, you can practice pranayama.

Unfortunately, I am still far away from unlocking the full potential of my own breath. Even after years of yoga and meditation, I am still working on just being able to notice my breath as I move through my day. I’ve particularly been trying to focus on checking in with my breath when I feel anxious. When our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) kicks on, the body naturally makes our breath quick and shallow. It is under the assumption that it needs to prepare to either flee or attack whatever threat may be nearby. However, this is supposed to be a short-lived experience. When we find ourselves perpetually in this heightened state, we start to experience various mental and physical health issues.

Interestingly enough, this feedback loop works in both directions. Our mind is usually the one running the show, telling the body it’s time to act. The body has just as much control over the mind though. If we can learn to recognize our stress response, we can override it with our breath. Now, this is no easy feat, and it definitely takes a lot of practice, but it is worth it. Don’t give up. Keep practicing and eventually we can all cultivate a beautiful symbiotic relationship with our own breath.

There is so much pleasure to be found in the simple act of breathing. One of the most valuable parts of my last acid experience was finding a stronger connection to my breath. As I laid in the grass with my boyfriend, enjoying the sun streaming down through the leaves above us and listening to the hum of locus in the background, I became intoxicated with the feeling of my own inhales and exhales. Each sip of air felt incredible, fresh oxygen, the gentle expansion of my lungs. Each out breath was a gorgeous release, a cleansing. I could have spent the whole evening just savoring my own breathing.

That experience has stayed with me since then. I am still able to tap into that sense of gratitude and wonder as I breathe. My breath alone can be better than any drug or addiction out there. And it’s mine to enjoy whenever I wish without consequence. I’ve even come up with a little visualization that helps me get back in touch with my LSD experience. I think it would work well for anyone who has been or still is a smoker.

As you breath in, just imagine you are taking a nice long, delicious drag off of a cigarette, vape, or joint. I genuinely think one of the reasons humans seem to enjoy smoking things so much is because it allows us to slow down and focus on our breath for a few minutes. You may even find it helpful to visualize the air as smoke moving in and out of your body. This would be an excellent visualization to try the next time you find yourself holding your breath or breathing very shallow.

Wherever you may be in regard to a pranayama practice, for the rest of the day, just try to come back to your breath whenever you notice yourself feeling anxious. Are you holding your breath? Is washing the dishes really that unpleasant or is it because you are unconsciously trying to not breath until you’re finished? No matter what is sparking that anxiety in me, checking in with my breath is always a huge help.

Let me know what your experience has been like regarding breathwork. When did you first realize the significance of the breath? What are some of your favorite pranayama practices? If you decide to try my little visualization, let me know how it went for you.

Pranayama for Anxiety: 4 Breathing Exercises to Try | YogiApproved.com

Breathe Into It

One of the first things you tend to learn when getting into yoga philosophy is that resistance to unpleasant feelings, situations, or emotions only leads to more intense, prolonged suffering. In fact, it could be said that all of the suffering we experience stems from our aversion to certain things. Life is about perspective primarily. So if we can teach ourselves to see everything through the eyes of loving kindness, there is no where for suffering to take root.

This principle of non-resistance can be seen in the mind, but also in the physical body. I have always been someone who detests the cold and avoids it at all costs. Unfortunately for me, I also happen to live in the northern part of the country where winters can be pretty intense. I read the other day that when you brace yourself against the cold and try to resist it, you are actually only making yourself feel colder! When we tense up our bodies, our blood vessels are constricted. Therefore less blood is able to flow to our extremities, making us colder. If we can breathe deeply and relax our bodies, we won’t be as uncomfortable with low temperatures.

This also works with other types of pain or discomfort. The breath is such a powerful thing, if we can only learn to utilize it. I often notice when I am in some type of physical pain whether it be a stomach ache, a sore throat, or just muscle cramps, I desperately try to avoid and disassociate from that area of my body. Sometimes as a kid I would even visualize boxing that body part off from the rest of me. Needless to say that type of response has never worked for me. Despite my best efforts I am unable to ignore my body’s painful cries.

The other night as I was struggling to fall asleep due to such a pain, I decided to try embracing that pain instead of attempting to push it away. I turned to focusing on my breath. I imagined sending the swirling, healing oxygen to that painful part of my body with every inhale. As I exhaled, I relaxed and accepted the unpleasant sensations. This didn’t make the pain go away, but after a few moments I felt much better. Today I am struggling with a very upset stomach from overeating yesterday. Stomach pain has always been one of the hardest problems for me to deal with ever since I was little. I’ve felt tense and uncomfortable all morning. Nothing I’ve tried seems to have helped. However, as I sit here writing this, I’ve been trying to also take slow, deep breaths down into my belly. I can definitely still feel some discomfort, but it’s much less pronounced than earlier.

Just like with most meditative practices, the hardest part is staying focused. Even after years of practicing yoga and meditation it can be hard for me to take deep breaths as I move through a normal day. In fact, a lot of the time I find that my breath is exceptionally shallow or that I’m holding it! It can definitely be frustrating when it feels like despite your best efforts you aren’t making much progress. The good thing is each breath is another opportunity to practice. Breathwork is something we are able to work on anywhere no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing. Not to mention it’s free! It can even be quite fun once you start to notice the connection your breath has on your body and mind.

I find it really helps me to attach an image or an emotion to my breath to help me concentrate. Recently I’ve started to imagine each sip of air as a delicious food, drink, or even a drug that I get to consume. I look forward to every inhale and exhale. I savor the way it feels as it moves through my body. Sometimes I’ll also picture all of the wonderful things my body will be able to do with so much fresh oxygen. I imagine it providing me with energy and happy feelings. I imagine my body using it to perform all of it’s vital functions: building new cells, cleansing toxins, healing me, etc. Just thinking about it makes me so grateful for this body I have been blessed with. It inspires me to breathe deeply as a gift to this body. Inhale – I love you, body. Exhale – thank you, body.

The next time you are feeling upset or you’re in pain, whatever it may be that you find yourself resisting, try to honor that feeling rather than running from it. Perhaps it will even turn out to be a gift. It is easy to go through life without growing or changing when things are going well. However, pain and discomfort are necessary signals that we can learn so much from. For instance, my stomach hurting this morning is a reminder to take better care of my body. It is my body asking me for love, kindness, and respect. Instead of being frustrated and upset with my body for not behaving the way I want it to, I am going to listen to it’s urgent request. I am going to use this unpleasant morning to push me to do better for myself today and from now on. It all begins with the breath.

So just breathe

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Breath

Before yoga, I never really paid much attention to my breathing. It was just something my body did, like blinking or swallowing, nothing very interesting or worth my attention. I think most people live their entire lives without really thinking about their breath. Even a lot of people that do yoga still don’t have a strong connection with their breathing. I certainly still have a LONG way to go myself with that aspect of my practice.

When I first began doing yoga, I was only concerned with “doing it right.” Certain poses were paired with inhales, others were paired with exhales. That much I knew. However, it was still difficult to keep this in mind when bending my body into, at that time, strange and unfamiliar positions. I didn’t know the significance of breathing in a certain way as I practiced. I was just trying to follow along. As my practice grew though, so did my connection with my breath and my understanding of its importance.

The breath is possibly the most important aspect of yoga. Not only that, but it is one of the easiest parts of practice to take with you into your daily life. You don’t need to do a 90 minute class to destress. Just a few deep, conscious breaths can work wonders. I used to think it was magical how, for some reason, doing yoga always managed to calm me down. Now I finally realize that it isn’t necessarily because of the movements and postures, it is because when I practice yoga, I am breathing differently.

It seems hard to believe at first, but the way we breathe can completely change how we experience life. There is a feedback loop between our mental state and our breath. When we are feeling anxious or upset, our breath naturally becomes quick and shallow. Our bodies are trying to prepare us to fight or flee. I’m sure this was once far more useful to us than it is in modern times. The good thing is, while our mental state effects our breath, the reverse is also true. We can use our breath to change our state of mind.

The next time you are feeling less than ideal, take a step back and notice your breathing. Is it quick and mainly staying up in your chest? If it is, try taking at least 5 mindful, full breaths. Consciously directing each inhale down into the belly, using the diaphragm. Try making the exhale twice as long as the inhale, pushing out every bit of air. Breathing in this way naturally calms down our nervous system. We are using our breath to show the mind that we are okay.

The most incredible thing is, this always works. Always. Even when I have moments where it feels like it’s not working, I realize it isn’t that it isn’t working, it’s that I am just having a hard time controlling my breath. I let my mind carry me away too quickly. I am not able to stay with my breath long enough to utilize it. But with practice it becomes easier to do no matter what state our minds are in. We are able to use our breath to help us wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

I used to roll my eyes at the constant obsession with the breath in yoga. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Now I understand the emphasis. It can be frustrating not being able to express to someone what immense power we all have that we are not tapping into. However much you preach about breath work though, it is up to each individual to find out its importance for themselves.

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Breathing Through Discomfort

As my yoga practice continues to grow deeper, it is slowly saturating every corner of my life. It is amazing to be able to integrate this knowledge into my day. One of the invaluable things that yoga has brought to my life is an awareness and connection with the breath. There is so much power in the breath.

At first I began to concentrate on my breathing during my daily workout. Just like in yoga postures, I am often able to find a beautiful balance of effort and ease (sthira and sukha) as I am doing vigorous exercises. The connection to my breath assures that my muscles receive all the oxygen they need. Instead of focusing on how difficult my workout is, I am able to focus on full, deep, and steady breaths. I experience less discomfort (often even finding pleasure) as I push my body to its limits. In addition, time seems to fly by as I find a flow-like state. I find excitement and gratitude for what my body is capable of.

After seeing the benefits mindful breathing could have in my physical experiences, I began to utilize it to benefit my mental state throughout my day as well. I started to notice my breath in moments when I was experiencing something emotionally difficult. I realized that when I am feeling extremely stressed my breath is very shallow. Sometimes it even feels as if I am holding my breath! Once my mind has shifted to my breathing and I begin to breathe slowly and fully, I immediately feel much calmer and less overwhelmed. It’s incredible how much this has helped me cope with challenging emotions. Even my experience of mundane daily tasks, like vacuuming and doing the dishes, has become more pleasant.

I am still struggling with and improving my awareness of my breath every day. I am so grateful that my yoga journey continues to give me new perspectives and new things to focus on in each moment. I am so excited to be able to share the things I learn and give my future students the life changing gifts that yoga has given me. I am so lucky that in a few months I will be certified to teach this ancient, beautiful, and profound practice. Until then I am going to continue learning and growing and enjoying this beautiful journey.

Just breathe. ♥