Considering how relatively easy breath work is in terms of how much effort you have to put in to yield powerful results, there is surprisingly little teaching offered on this subject compared to all the other health practices done around the world. The fact that the respiratory system is the only system in our bodies that is both voluntary and involuntary speaks of its natural importance as a tool for betterment - something known and practiced for a long time.
In yoga we of course have pranayama and many of us are familiar with practices such as the alternate nostril breathing and breath retention. However, there is a type of breath work that can dramatically increase our well-being not only through our practice but in our daily lives as well - every single moment, even when sleeping. The steps for this type of transformative breathing are simple, but like anything that is new, it does require practice.
The key is to keep things natural. In general, when nature breathes its rhythms of life there is no or very little tension. This is the way it should be for us as well. Tension in the musculoskeletal system is a reflection of what is happening in the nervous system. If there is tension in our bodies the sympathetic nerves have taken over and activated a response that is stress inducing and thus, life force reducing. When breathing without tension, the body activates the parasympathetic nerves, which causes a relaxation effect. How then can we do this in yoga and in our daily lives?
The answer is simple. It starts with observation - so let’s try it now. Put your awareness into your breathing and witness how your breath is doing. Notice if are you breathing through your nose or mouth. Is your breath short or long, even or irregular? Is there any tension at any stage of your breath cycle? Just take a moment and observe these things. Allow your focus to relax into your body and feel what is going on. Do not try to change anything, just observe for now.
It is important to first learn how to recognise what is happening before trying to change anything. The more you practice observing yourself, the easier it becomes to avoid unwanted habits. In daily life, when emotions and the whirlwind of routines may take over, it is vitally important to observe your breath in different situations. When you're driving, working towards a deadline, on a holiday, cooking a fantastic meal or making love, try to tune into your breathing as often as you can and notice the differences in the quality of your breath.
If you do encounter tension, ease back to about two thirds of your current effort. This range will allow you to stay within the comfort zone of the parasympathetic nervous response so you can stay more relaxed in life situations and your practice. Naturally it is easier said than done, especially when you're late for that super important appointment, are stuck in traffic and haven't had your breakfast yet. But getting used to feeling your breath in your yoga practice and slowly introducing this to other times of the day to create a habit of going internal is a good start. Noticing where your breath is and how it feels in different asanas trains this ability to be in control of your most precious life support system.
The second thing to do is make sure you are breathing through your nose. This is a more natural way of breathing than through the mouth, and is more efficient due to the way the sinuses regulate the air temperature and filter toxins. We're simply built to breathe with our nose, not our mouths. When you have started a habit of observation and breathing through your nostrils, you want to begin focusing on breathing into your belly. Deep abdominal breathing not only activates the relaxation response, but it also increases your oxygen intake and transfer into your blood, making your blood more alkaline. Cultivating a habit of deep abdominal breathing improves your mental clarity and your ability to do physical activity.
Often, especially when in stressful situations, our breaths tend to rise to our chests, which is an anxiety inducing response. Breathing into the belly helps counter such emotions, the key again is to recognise when it happens. Once you have become better at observing your breath, you learn to recognise when tension is just about to occur and can deal with it before it kicks in fully. This too is great to practice whilst doing yoga, as often the breathing is specified to a certain area in the body depending on the asana and you can focus on that area easily. For instance in child’s pose you can really feel the breath in the lower and upper back, whereas in any side stretch we can feel the breath emphasised in the midriffs and the ribs.
Use your diaphragm consciously. This means that when you inhale, be aware of pushing the diaphragm down throughout the whole torso. The front, the sides and the back of the diaphragm should be equally active and expand your belly and sides evenly. When you exhale, actively pull up the diaphragm on all sides - don’t just release and let it collapse. The exhalation is a crucial part of the breath cycle as that is when the oxygen is actually transferred into your blood cells. Physiologically it is easier to have a longer in-breath than out-breath. This is because the veins that carry your blood cells back to your heart from your extremities during the exhalation are thinner than the arteries that carry your blood cells away from your heart during the inhalation. To keep your body working at maximum efficiency, your exhalation needs to be as long as your inhalation. This is what is meant in traditional yoga texts when they say that the exhalation should lead the breath.
These are the first steps you can practice straight away to improve your yoga and wellbeing. Very practical yet immensely useful, they can help you get started in using your breath more efficiently and consciously. Through the habit of observation you can learn to apply the above methods when you find yourself needing to trigger a relaxation response. Something that is very useful in daily life.
The next stage of this practice is learning to breathe into your organs and soft tissues in order to recognise imbalances within your body and improve your health further. This is a key to deepening your pranayama practice as it trains you to become more sensitive to the qualities of prana, eventually learning to separate prana from the air you breathe and to start feeling the flow of prana inside the channels of your body. This does require a teacher and more training as the deeper you go within, the more subtlety is involved.
But even with the simple techniques shared here you can improve the quality of your breathing and watch as your old habits automatically change into better ones. This way you can be doing a breath practice at all times of the day with less and less effort. Your breath naturally becomes longer and smoother, and you will also find it easier to deal with every day matters. Simple ways and powerful results are all just a breath away.