Conscious movement of the breath utilizes the belly, diaphragm, and chest. To practice, take in a deep inhale (the lungs fill, the lower belly expands) for a count of 3 to 5 seconds. Pause at the top of your inhalation, then slowly exhale, for a longer count (4-6 seconds); practice without strain. Invite the breath to sink into the deepest reaches of your body, like a sponge soaking with water. Or, if you’d rather skip the technicalities, simply breathe like a baby. A baby blooms on the inhale, and surrenders on the exhale. Feel yourself unravel on the inside, and soften on the outside with each wondrous breath.
I’m attracted to the idea of breathing along with the rest of the world. Breathing is a matter of contracting and expanding through the lungs; think of that contraction and expansion spreading throughout your whole body, drawing rich oxygen to the cells, which also contract and expand in their minuscule way. Even the cells take in oxygen and dispel carbon dioxide; the cells mirror the lungs. We inspire (drawing in life’s nutrients) and expire (letting go of that which doesn’t serve us). The exhalation, one after another, elicits an ever-deepening relaxation response.
Conscious breathing. Pranayama (the practice of breathing), maximizes prana, or life energy. Not a cure-all…but a practice that ripens with time. I was going to say, “not a quick fix”, when in fact, yes, it IS a quick fix. Try conscious breathing anywhere, anytime and observe your mind and body relax. A gold mine of healing, calming energy available to us at all times, even when bedridden (especially helpful when we’re injured or ill).
The immediacy of this valuable resource cannot be understated. I’ve proven it to myself many times. After the publication of my first book, Baby Talk, I was scheduled for a TV appearance in L.A. on a daytime talk show that was doing a piece on the art of communication. The night before, in my hotel room, I meditated for a couple hours (instead of my usual watching TV or eating), with specific attention to slowing down my breath and heart rate. That night, I slept perfectly well. Then just before taping, with flutters in my stomach, I again sat down to breathe slowly for 15 minutes, calming my nervous system and steadying my mind with the phrase, “all is well.” What a difference it made. As I sat in the green room with several other people waiting to go on stage, I felt perfectly calm, energized and confident. The taping went well, but more importantly, my body felt calm and assured throughout. I was able to recognize when the mind “takes off” into a tailspin, telling me this or that will go wrong, I’ll forget my presentation, trip on-stage, whatever the pesky mind makes up to throw me off course. But none of that happened and I just kept on breathing with attention. This experience left an enduring impression.
I tried it again, just before testing for a black belt in Shotokan karate. Imagine a panel of three elderly Japanese men who are sitting stiffly, and completely expressionless; they are your judges, and as you walk out on the floor, everyone is quiet and waiting for you to perform. I smiled at them (because that is also relaxing) and commenced my routine. The jitters were gone and I got lost in a “flow” where I didn’t have to think about individual moves; it simply felt effortless. I owe that success to daily practice, but even more so, to the fine art of conscious breathing. I’ve used conscious breathing to settle a stomach ailment while traveling, to birth babies (REALLY INTENSE), and to smooth out my reactions to severe turbulence on airplanes. And if I remember, during those ordinary times, I may as well practice while standing in line at the post office or grocery store.
I have many breathing books in my library, some from yogic origins, others written from an experiential viewpoint. For thousands of years, yogis have benefited from the powerful practice of breathing to maximize energy, rejuvenate the body and calm the mind. I especially like Richard Rosen’s The Yoga of Breath, A Step by Step Guide to Pranayama because he offers engaging and accessible practices that you can weave into your everyday life. A classic, by the father of Iyengar Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar’s, Light on Pranayama, The Yogic Art of Breathing teaches the techniques of breathing, along with a comprehensive background of yoga philosophy; and lastly, Conscious Breathing: Breathwork for Health, Stress Release and Personal Mastery, by Gay Hendricks is a great book that skips any particular philosophies and charges into how and why a ten-minute daily breathing program can increase stamina, concentration and overall fitness.