In last month’s article, we explored why optimal breathing is the basis of health and well-being. Besides the obvious fact that breath gives you oxygen and life energy, optimal breathing helps you to de-stress, regulates your heart-rate, brainwaves, and nervous system, facilitates digestion, enhances immune response, and is involved in virtually every aspect of your health.
Consciously breathing well also centers you in the present moment and connects you to your essential being. You can use conscious attention to your breath as a tool to integrate your mind, body, and emotions. You can use it as a basis for self-cultivation and inner mastery. Optimal breathing also just plain feels good. It’s a great tool to use at any moment of your life to come back to your natural joy and vitality.
In this article, we’ll explore three keys to optimal breathing.
Breathing Key #1: Optimal breathing is through the nostrils. Breathing through the nostrils is important because the air we breathe is first filtered in our nasal passages. As Yogi Rama says:
“The nostrils are two narrow, tortuous channels, containing numerous bristly hairs which serve the purpose of a filter or sieve to strain the air of its impurities, etc., which are expelled when the breath is exhaled. Not only do the nostrils serve this important purpose, but they also perform an important function in warming the air inhaled. ” (P. 33, Science of Breath)
Breathing in through the nostrils purifies and warms the air, while breathing out through the nostrils clears the filtered impurities out of your system. Because of that, it’s best to practice nostril breathing with your mouth closed almost all of the time. Exceptions to this are during heavy exertion when you need more oxygen and during certain types of cleansing and tension relieving breaths. Also, if you are congested, you’ll need to breathe through your mouth until your congestion is relieved.
In the Science of Breath, Yogi Rama goes on to describe the practice of taking a Complete Breath. In the following exercise he gives a good description of what it means to breathe fully.
Breathing Key #2: The Complete Breath:
“(1) Stand or sit erect. Breathing through the nostrils, inhale steadily, first filling the lower part of the lungs, which is accomplished by bringing into play the diaphragm, which descending exerts a gentle pressure on the abdominal organs, pushing forward the front walls of the abdomen. Then fill the middle part of the lungs, pushing out the lower ribs, breastbone and chest. Then fill the higher portion of the lungs, protruding the upper chest, thus lifting the chest, including the upper six or seven pairs of ribs. . .
The inhalation is continuous, the entire chest cavity from the lowered diaphragm to the highest point of the chest in the region of the collarbone, being expanded with a uniform movement. . .
(2) Retain the breath a few seconds.
(3) Exhale quite slowly, holding the chest in a firm position, and drawing the abdomen in a little and lifting it upward slowly as the air leaves the lungs. When the air is entirely exhaled, relax the chest and abdomen.” (P.47, Science of Breath)
If that is a complete natural breath, why doesn’t it just happen naturally? Why do we have to pay attention to it?
First of all, when you are stressed or afraid, it’s common to hold tension in your abdomen, around the base of your ribs, and in your shoulder blades. You will also tend to raise your shoulders. This restricts the downward movement of your diaphragm and creates a higher, shallower, breath. High shallow breathing does not inflate your lungs as fully and you do not receive as much oxygen. Because of that, you breathe more rapidly to try and get more air.
In addition, under stress your body activates your sympathetic nervous system which shunts blood to your extremities for action. This demand for more peripheral circulation further increases the demands on your heart and lungs which further elevates your heart and respiration rates.
Your physiological response to stress may be harmless for a short period of time, but when it becomes chronic your breathing gets locked in a restricted pattern. For many people, restricted breathing becomes normal. As described in last month’s article, this creates a downward spiral of negative physiological consequences.
So what can you do? You might say, well, obviously, start breathing through your nostrils with Complete Breaths. Yes, that would be ideal. However, it is not as simple as that. Why? First off, when you try to do that, you will probably try too hard. You will probably try to make it happen correctly. If you have chronic muscle tension already, trying hard will just add to that tension and exacerbate the problem.
This brings us to the third key to unlocking the power of breath:
Breathing Key #3: Allow and follow, don’t try and force it.
Come to think of it, that’s probably good advice for most things in this life. With breathing that advice is absolutely essential.
To practice all three of the points above, set aside a short period of time each day (first thing in the morning and/or last thing at night are ideal times) and simply pay attention to how you are breathing.
You can sit or lie down (initially, lying down will be an easier way to feel yourself breathing fully). Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest to get a better feel for what is happening. Close your mouth and your eyes and breathe through your nose only. Allow your breathing to be as it is and take note of it. Resist the urge to breathe correctly or optimally. Just observe the way that you are breathing.
Feel your breathing process. Is it slow or fast? Is it shallow or deep? Is it continuous or jerky? Does your mind jump in and try to fix it? See if you can just let your breath be and learn from it.
As you continue to pay attention, does your breathing change? What is your posture like? Are your shoulders drawn up or resting down? Is your face relaxed? How about your jaw, your eyes, your hands, your abdomen, and your feet? How does your breathing feel when you relax every part of your body?
Take a few deliberate, slow, complete breaths as described by Yogi Rama. Then, return to simply paying attention to your breathing. Allow more complete breathing to happen, rather than forcing it. Periodically, take a few more deliberate, slow, complete breaths to center your attention and retrain your body.
Once you become familiar with doing the three keys to optimal breathing naturally, you can use conscious optimal breathing any time you feel stress or need a break to come back to yourself.
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Copyright 2010 Kevin Schoeninger
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