My new year blog resolution is to do a new yoga blog each week. In each, I’ll introduce a different asana (pose), pranayama (breathwork), meditation or relaxation.
Because my background is in mental and emotional health and wellbeing (you can find out more here), I’ll be focusing on these benefits.
And I’m going to start with the most important (to me) element of yoga: The breath. I started going to yoga classes about 15 years ago but it was only when I started training as a yoga therapist and instructor that I finally understood the importance of conscious breathing and co-ordinating our movements with the breath.
Sun Salutations and other asanas were transformed for me when I learned to use the breath (as oppose to the pretending I’d been doing all those years).
Yet tuning into your own movement and breath can be especially hard to do in classes – the instructor’s instructions will be unlikely to match your natural speed and everyone in the class – even in my tiniest classes – will have different breath rates so practicing on your own can be especially helpful.
For anyone who’s new to yoga, being told when to inhale and exhale as well as where to put various limbs and what to look at may feel completely overwhelming and it’s completely natural to overlook the breath.
And yet mindful (sometimes called conscious) breathing has so many benefits. Today, I’m going to encourage you to notice your breath just as you sit (or if it’s more comfortable, stand or lie down).
In the weeks ahead, I’ll encourage you to continue to be aware of the breath and it will become easier. Having said that, we’re human beings. Our minds are going to wander. And this is one of the beauties of being mindful of our breath. It’s always there to come back to. We don’t need any props.
Sometimes, we’ll stay focused on it throughout our practice. Other days, we’ll have to concentrate really hard on co-ordinating our movements with the breath.
While the latter can feel frustrating, in terms of brain activity, it’s actually a good thing as we’re cultivating the mind, strengthening the prefrontal cortex and this will help with emotional regulation, decision making and concentration.
When it’s harder, we have to be that much more mindful! And it’s a great gauge for how you might be feeling on any given day. Just as with the poses, we’re more flexible / stronger / have more stamina on different days, our capacity to concentrate varies when we’re stressed or have a lot on our minds.
And, of course, spending just a few minutes coming into the present moment and using the breath as an anchor to aid mindfulness will help us better deal with all those things awaiting our attention when we step off our yoga mats and into our day ahead.
For today, once you’ve made yourself comfortable, aim to have the spine as straight as feels comfortable. Some people like to imagine a cord pulling them up through the crown of their heads. If this is an image that supports you in sitting straight and comfortably, feel free to use it.
Start by noticing where you’re breathing from at the moment. The top of the lungs? Middle of the lungs? Lower lungs?
If you’re able to breathe more deeply, as if from the lower lungs (sometimes known as diaphragmatic breathing), it will help you calm your whole system by pausing the stress response. You’ll also be better able to absorb more oxygen.
How does that feel? Some people find it easy, when breathing consciously, to shift this. Others struggle. Just notice whatever is the case for you in this moment. This isn’t about judging ourselves, just being curious and kind. Beating ourselves up won’t help us relax.
Now notice the ratio of your inhalation to exhalation. Are they balanced? Is the inhale longer? Or the exhale?
A longer inhalation can be great for energising our whole systems but, in this 24/7 world we live in, with our stress responses being triggered so often, we rarely need to do so. Instead, we can consciously calm our systems by having a deliberately longer exhalation. If you like to count, maybe in for 1 and out for 2. Or in for 2 and out for 4. Work with figures that support your natural breath.
A balanced breath balances the system and the brain but, again, it is more balancing longer term, to calm the system during our meditative / yoga practice.
How does it feel to consciously elongate your exhalation for a few moments? (You can do it for longer if you want). And it might be that even at home, alone, suddenly questioning the way you breathe might be making you stressed and anxious about something you’ve done naturally your whole life.
Breathing mindfully like this for three minutes or longer, can help activate the Relaxation Response, the body’s natural antidote to the more frequently triggered Fight/Flight Response (both identified in the same Harvard lab, decades apart, the Relaxation Response by Dr Herbert Benson and Flight / Flight by Walter Cannon).
We’re alive and this is wonderful. It’s also a great reminder, for those times when our inner critics tell us we’re doing whatever (in this case breathing) ‘wrong’, that we’re still alive so it’s all good.
It’s just worth remembering that when we choose to breathe more consciously, we’re calming and potentially even retraining the autonomic nervous system (ANS), supporting our heart health, immune function, easing stress and anxiety and allowing the body’s natural healing capacities to kick in.
I encourage you to build up. You may want to time a minute and count your complete breaths (an inhalation and exhalation equalling one complete breath) so you can fit a minute of conscious breathing / mindful breathing in throughout your day whenever it feels good (without having to set timers or complicate things).
And, of course, building up will bring you additional benefits.
What did you notice about your breath today?
Were you breathing more from the lower lungs, middle of the lungs or top of the lungs?
How did it feel when you chose (if you chose – you may have been perfectly comfortable breathing from the top of your lungs and chose to continue!) to breathe more deeply?
Did it help relax you?
How about your inhalation and exhalation?
Were they equal?
Was the inhale longer?
Or the exhale?
If you chose to consciously calm your system through your breath, did the longer exhalation help you today?
Did counting help or did you prefer a more intuitive approach?
Feel free to comment below.
And you can find out more about my classes here and my work with individuals here.