Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Power of the breath

The breath is something that for the most part we ignore yet it is the key to unlocking so much within our bodies. It can calm us down, energize us, shift our state of consciousness, relax our bodies and so much more. Breath-work is a major part of my work and so I’m able to witness the effects it can have all the time, in others and in myself. We can go days without food and water but we can only go a very few minutes without breathing.

The Yogis teach that in the physical realm, we have three components: the body, the breath and the mind. They are often referred to as three interlocking rings. Pull any one of them and the other two will follow. When the body is exercising for example, the mind is churning through thoughts and the breath speed increases. When we’re frightened, the body tenses, the breath shortens and speed increases and the mind races. When we’re relaxed and at peace, the body is calm, the breath is slower and smooth and the mind is quieter. The easiest one for us to gain conscious control over is the breath. If we want to relax the body or quiet the mind, controlling the breath is the way to do that because of their interconnectivity. This is why breath-work is used as preliminary step leading to meditation.

Most people have never had any type of formal training in using the breath and as such they never really become aware of its power. They simply use it to keep the body alive and as such it’s used at a very unconscious level. Take a moment and without shifting your breathing pattern at all, just notice your breath right now. Notice how it feels as you read these words. Notice how it almost begins to shift just from holding your awareness on it. Just make a mental note of its speed, movement into (or not into) the lungs and abdomen and the quality of the breath (smoothly, shaky, broken, shallow, deep, slow, rapid, etc). Notice also how your body feels, again without shifting it, just simply observe what is. Does it feel tense, relaxed in different areas? Finally notice the quality of your mind and the thoughts (busy, quiet, scattered, focused, etc). Just simply observe these three things without trying to change any of them and you can begin to see their connection.

Just like all of life, our breath moves in a cycle. There are four pieces to each cycle. There is the inhale and the exhale which we’re all familiar with but there is also the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. At the top of the inhale the breathing movement shifts from inhaling to begin exhaling and the bottom of the exhale is simply the opposite of that. Again, without shifting it consciously, take a moment now to notice each of those components in your own breathing cycle right now and just make a mental note of it.

To understand the full power of the breath we need to examine each component of a full breathing cycle. The first part is the inhalation. This is the energizing aspect of the cycle. As the breath moves into our bodies, we bring in a fresh supply of oxygen into the lungs. At top of the inhale, the breathing actually stops for a moment while the body shifts to prepare for the exhalation process. All of the breath which was just pulled in is released into the lungs to be transformed for use within the body. The exhalation is the relaxing, or calming, portion of the breathing cycle. As we exhale, we release the carbon dioxide which our bodies produce as waste. The final part of the breathing cycle is the bottom of the exhale where the body shifts again to begin the inhalation once more. If you focus on a few breathing cycles, you can actually feel the shift happen at the top and bottom of each breath.

Now that you’ve gotten a feel for how your breath is flowing, let’s try a simple exercise to see its power. Position yourself so that you’re sitting fully upright and able to breathe more deeply. Using a consistent count for each section of the breathing cycle like “1, 1000, 2, 1000, 3, 1000, 4, 1000…” let’s explore shifting the ratios. Inhale and then exhale fully and slowly inhale for a count of 4, hold at the top for a count of 2, exhale for a count of 4 and hold at the bottom for a count of 2. This count is known as a 4:2:4:2 ratio. Repeat that cycle for 30 seconds or so. Then relax your breath to your normal breathing and just notice how your body feels and how your mind (thoughts) is in comparison to how it was before. After taking time to simply observe those things, now shift the ratio to 6:2:3:2 (inhale 6, hold 2, exhale 3, hold 2). Repeat that cycle for 30 seconds, then relax and observe. Now shift the ratio one last time to be 3:2:6:2 (inhale 3, hold 2, exhale 6, hold 2). Repeat for 30 seconds and observe the body and breath once more. This easy little exercise should show you how easy it is for you to consciously relax the body and quiet the mind that quickly or energize it if need be.

Shift the exercise a bit now that your body is calm from the last cycle and notice the energy shifts by breath retention at the top and bottom. Exhale and inhale a bit faster than normal and hold the breath at the top for about 6 count. Quickly and easily exhale and then inhale again and hold for 6. Repeat this cycle for about 10 breaths. Then relax the breath again and observe the effects that had on your body. Finally shift the retention to the bottom of the exhale and hold for a 6 count there. Repeat that 10 times and observe the tranquility that spreads over your body and the quietness of the mind. Holding the breath in energizes the body and mind whereas holding the breath out relaxes the body and calms the mind. Please actually try these exercises rather than just reading them because experience is the most powerful teacher that we have.

Now that you have a feel for easy it is to shift your energy, you can use this information to help you achieve the states you desire at will. If you’re having trouble focusing, feeling nervous, tense or scared use a breathing pattern where the emphasis is on elongating the exhale and allowing the breath to rest at the bottom of the exhale. If you’re feeling tired and lethargic and mentally sluggish, focus on lengthening the inhale, holding at the top and then relaxing the exhale and starting the next inhale. These cycles should be repeated for at least a minute or two to feel the full effects on the body and mind. For those who struggle to fall asleep (which is often caused by an over-active mind) a focused breathing pattern with a ratio of 1:2 (inhale to exhale) should help you fall asleep in no time. For this purpose just let the breath move of its own accord at the top and bottom of the cycle without focusing on retention. Remember these are ratios that you can shift. Depending upon your breathing capacity for every 1 second of inhale, allow 2 of exhale. So an inhale of 4 seconds would result in an exhale of 8 seconds. Play with the ratios that work best for you but always let the exhale be longer to relax the body and quiet the mind.

I hope you’ll begin to notice the body-mind-breath connection more fully in the coming days. If you’d like to learn a bit more about the power behind the breath, visit my website at The information I’ve shared with you here is what you might think of as the welcome mat into the world of breath-work or pranayama as the Yogi’s call it. Books have been written on the topic and go into more detail on the many powerful uses of breath-work and the effects it can have on the body and your consciousness.

Breathe in joy, live in peace.


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