Most of us don’t notice that we breathe. It is something that we do – thankfully – automatically. And yet, in taking it for granted we are missing on an amazingly powerful tool to enhance our wellbeing.
The ancient yogic texts tell us that life isn’t defined by the number of years a person lives but by the number of breaths each soul is given.
And yet, when we look at our breathing, most of the time we tend to breathe pretty shallowly, take more shallow breaths than slow, deeper ones.
This type of breathing is perfectly normal when we are stressed – think of narrowly escaping an accident or having a difficult discussion with someone. Our body’s nervous system moves into fight-flight-freeze mode and what of its trademarks is a shallow chest breathing.
The problem in our culture is that, even when we are not under any specific stress, our usual mode of breathing tends to be this shallow chest breathing, during which only the top part of the chest moves with the breath, while the abdomen remains still.
When we breathe in this way, we don’t take in enough oxygen to feed the lower lungs properly. We are inadvertently depriving ourselves of a sufficient amount of oxygen which has an impact on our cardiovascular and other biological systems.
The solution to this is to retrain ourselves to breathe using our full lung capacity.
The practice of this breath training (called pranayama in Sanskrit) is also very relaxing:
Start by lying down on your back. Bring your feet close to your buttocks, soles on the ground and feet slightly apart (about hip width). Place your hands on your abdomen, one hand above the navel and the other one below the navel. Keep your abdominal muscles relaxed.
Allow yourself to breathe without expanding the chest. You will feel your abdomen expand and rise as you breathe in.
As you breathe out, feel your diaphragm pushing the breath up and out.
Practice this for 5-15 min. Do not practice any breathing technique for more than 15 minutes at a time as this can be undue stress on your breathing, which isn’t what we want to achieve. Also, if at any time during the practice you find yourself becoming uncomfortable in any way, simply revert to your normal breathing.
After practising this diaphragmatic breathing for as long as desired, hug your knees towards your chest and rock from side to side to relax your lower back. Roll over to one side when you are ready to come up, and slowly push yourself up to sitting using your hands.
Stay sitting for a moment, just breathing normally before standing up.
When it becomes quite natural for you to breathe in this way lying down, see if you can practise sitting and standing up.
This practice can feel unnatural at the beginning but, if you persevere, it quickly becomes a new habit of slower, deeper, more nourishing breaths.
As you practise extending your breath and using your full lung capacity, you may find that your energy levels and your vitality rise.
If you’d like to explore more, join me on the 18th July for an online breath and yoga workshop during which I will cover several breathing techniques that will help you increase your vitality, relax your mind and even ease you into a restful night’s sleep.