Can a conscious breathing practice help you?

Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. ~Thích Nhất Hạnh

Conscious breathing, put quite simply, is bringing  your awareness or attention to the action of breathing.  Answering the questions:  What is the quality of my breath? How long is the inhale? How long is the exhale? This breath focused exercise is called Pranayama in Yogic Philosophy. Prana literally translated "that which is infinitely everywhere" and Ayama means to "stretch or extend". Pranayama, the act of stretching or extending the breath is a tool we can use to calm the fluctuations of the mind by bringing your attention to the present moment. There is nothing more present than saying to yourself " I am breathing in" on your inhale and "I am breathing out" on your exhale. There are various types of Pranayama, too many to cover in this entry, so for a quick reference try the following exercise. 

Sitting where you are at this moment, lengthen through the spine, sitting up nice and tall and close your eyes. Breathing in and out of the nose, bring your attention to your breath. Notice how the cool air travels in through your nose, filling up your lungs, causing the chest and belly to rise. Notice on the exhale how your chest & belly fall as the lungs deflate. Notice the warm air as it leaves through the nose. Begin to count these breathes, thinking to yourself "Ten I am breathing in, Ten I am breathing out, Nine I am breathing in, Nine I am breathing out" continues on counting until you reach the number one. Once you reach one, notice the quality of your mind. How do you feel? 

This simple yet challenging exercise takes practice. So if it felt awkward or difficult, give it a try at another time, maybe at the end of a long day or upon waking in the morning. It is common to feel distracted or fidgeting in our seat. Continuing with the practice will help you overcome these urges. Pranayama is a way to cultivate mindfulness, reducing mental stress & anxiety. There are many benefits including increasing lung capacity, improving oxygenation, reducing mental anxiety and releasing physical tension. In Yoga, we use this ancient tool along with asana (physical poses) to bring balance to our mind, body and spirit. 

See Daniel's latest journal entry for his experience with coupling conscious breathing and imagery. 

"01/15 Sunrise w/ Victoria 

Sun salutations are starting to feel more and more natural. Also, I don't get nearly as winded after them thanks to Victoria's consistent use of this sequence. 

The trickiest part for me is the transition from down-dog to lunge. I figured out that planting one hand firmly before swinging my leg over makes that easier. However, Victoria thought that might not be good for my wrist, so I might need to find another way just to be safe. 

It amazes me that I can hold a plank for a long time, but I can't hold the bottom portion of chaturanga for more than five seconds before I drop. That pose must work completely different muscles, because the difference borders on the absurd. As Barney Stinson would say, “Challenge accepted.”

01/16 Sunrise Yoga w/ Marcy 

I love that Marcy takes time to discuss conscious breathing at the start of all of her classes. I don't think it is helpful to just tell a person to “breathe deeply,” because they would if they knew how to. 

A good way to begin improving your breathing pattern is to actually think “inhale” and “exhale” when you perform those actions. When that becomes easy enough, you could trade those words for a more specific action verb like “release” or “soften.” 

And if you want to go wild with it, you could trade those words for vivid words like “love” and “hate.” I used to struggle with stress and depression. It helped me to imagine warm feelings entering my body on inhales and nasty thoughts exiting my body on exhales. Feel free to give that a try. 

01/17 Yoga for Everybody w/ Marcy 

The thing I appreciated most about this class is that Marcy made a big point of explaining the goal of every major technique she used. 

Relaxation poses like corpse, for example, are meant to help a person unwind at the end of class (and unwinding is important because we are so busy doing things that we forget we need to simply be sometimes). 

Today I also thought about how it is good to intentionally improve your form on poses, even after you understand how they work on a basic level. Even things like forward fold, flat back, and mountain pose can be made better with conscious practice. Put more bluntly: don't get cocky. 

01/18 Warm Yin-Yasa w/ Shelly 

Shelly said something thought-provoking that I'm going to try to paraphrase: “This class isn't about using your body to get into the pose. It is about letting the pose get into your body.” 

I can't remember her exact wording, but the point remains. It is tempting to rely on brute force – especially if you get frustrated with a particular pose – but doing so defeats the entire purpose of yoga, which is supposed to be a gentle and refreshing practice. 

One of the poses that frustrates me is the seated fold. I am ridiculously tall (6'3”). My legs are so long that it is very hard for me to reach my toes in a seated fold. I used to tense up in a misguided effort to force it, but I'm learning to be patient. Straps are a neat tool that might be helpful if you know this feeling. I start with my hands halfway down and ease myself down in baby-steps with each exhale. 

Oh, speaking of being tall, I finally bought a yoga mat that is specifically made for giants like me. It's nice to not end up with my head on the ground after bridge pose (this used to happen all the time!). If you're 6'1” or taller, you might benefit from it.  I also got a small yoga hand towel that I placed my palms on during down dog. It made a huge difference in grip strength. It definitely trumped all the other things I mentioned in my last entry"-Daniel Wallen