I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on breath work. I know that as a yoga teacher and alleged “wellness leader”, I truly need to practice what I preach. I will admit that beyond a bit of breath work at the start of my yoga classes, I barely do any exploration on my own. I think I run into the same trap everyone else does when it comes to breathing properly….it’s so SIMPLE, it’s REALLY HARD! Does that make any sense? Why is it so hard for us to do something so fundamental and simple?
Really, the hardest part is just getting started…once you start to experience the benefits, which are immediate, you’ll find yourself wanting to practice Pranayama more often, or you may find yourself doing it without even thinking.
So, I’d like to share an exercise I’ve been doing this week. I’m going to try a different exercise every week and post the instructions/results. This week I’m doing one I made up “20 Breaths”. But first, before I give you the instructions and results of what I experienced, let me share some amazing facts about breathing from the book Meditation as Medicine (a book EVERYONE should own!):
-Approximately one third of all people don’t even breathe well enough to sustain normal health
-The word “Inspiration” literally means “to breathe in”
-“Conscious breathing” (a.k.a. “Pranayama”) has direct impact on a part of the brain called the PAG (periaqueductal gray area). The PAG is important nodal point in which many nerves come together, and is the site of the body’s largest supply of opiate receptors. So the effects of Pranayama on the PAG and nervous system can increase our pain threshold (ever heard of Lamaze?) and help us control feelings of anger and fear (key for sufferers of PTSD)
So, on to the exercise…
How to do “20 Breaths”
This can be done in bed before going to sleep, or any time/place in which it is dark and quiet and you can get physically comfortable.
1) lie on your back with a firm pillow or yoga bolster under your knees. Make sure your head/neck are comfortable with a pillow or neck pillow, and that you’re warm. Rest your hands, palms down, on your belly.
2) Take a moment to consciously relax each part of your body, starting with the forehead, eyes, jaw, neck, etc…scanning down from top to bottom and feeling gravity draw you down into the earth.
3) Close your eyes, and try to focus your gaze on the TOP of your head. I know! Not the easiest thing. I sometimes lightly scratch the crown of the head, then focus my gaze on that spot where I feel an after-tingle. Try your best to maintain your focus on this spot for the entire exercise–you will drift in and out-just guide yourself back. Don’t strain the eyes by trying to turn them too far back in the sockets-just do your best.
4) Now begin deep breaths, through the nose. You will want your belly to rise first, then the lungs on the inhale, then on the exhale the lungs will fall, then the belly. Try to make each inhale and exhale as long as possible, perhaps a count of 5 in and 5 out. One breath is one complete inhale and exhale. Repeat this 20 times. You can use your fingertips to keep count. So starting with the pinky of the right hand, lightly press it into your belly to mark “1” when you’ve completed a breath…go through all the fingers to the pinky of the left hand, then reverse the order to go count another 10. Note: as you oxygenate the body, you may notice longer intervals of time between breaths.
5) At the end, just rest comfortably, and with eyes closed, let your gaze fall naturally where it may. Let your breath settle down into a natural pattern/depth, seeing perhaps if your body continues to “crave” some deep breaths.
My experienced results:
After first 5 breaths or so, I felt myself doing a “mini yawn” on the inhale; it felt like once my body got into the rhythm, it was physiologically “wanting” more and more of that good oxygen
Focusing on the top of my head was weird at first, I also tried to back off of straining my eyes. I found a “happy medium” in which I had my eyes comfortably rolled back, and imagined the crown of my head as much as possible. Note: the reason for focusing on this point is to stimulate the pineal gland, the gland in the brain that produces melatonin, a compound that affects our sleep rhythms, dreams and immunity.
Tearing of the eyes (which felt wonderful on my chronically dry, contact lens-bearing eyes)
Some post-nasal drip (also wonderful for me because I am just getting over the last of a little cold bug. I was somewhat congested, but almost completely clear after this exercise!)
Better sleep! I tried this once in the afternoon and about 10 minutes later almost drifted off into a nap (if it weren’t for that darn lawn mower outside!) It was weird because I was 100% relaxed and semi-unconscious, but I could hear my own breath–it fell automatically into a very smooth pattern similar to that in the exercise! This happened again when I tried it later in the evening–I usually take some supplements to help me sleep, but I slept fairly well without them. (of course, maybe the long weekend off for Thanksgiving and no big responsibilities helped!)
I woke up feeling like I had knocked almost 100% of my cold out of my body as well.
I’ll continue the exercise through the weekend and will update this post with any new experiences. And please try it on your own–post your experiences and questions here! 🙂