In my last two posts, I talked about ways that we can use the breath as a calming practice by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Because so many of us spend much of our time with our sympathetic nervous system overstimulated, the introduction of calming practices is something that most of us will find the most beneficial.
However, there are times (like that afternoon slump) when we need something that will perk us up a bit and help us stay more alert. In moments like these, many of us reach for caffeine or sugar to achieve this energy boost, but both of these substances can have problematic side effects.
Fortunately, the breath can be used as a means of perking us up as well as for calming us! We have already explored the way that increasing the exhalation relative to the inhalation can bring a calming effect. The reverse is also true: increasing the inhalation relative to the exhalation brings an energizing effect.
The breath of joy, also known as the conductor breath or mad conductor’s breath, is a great way to do this because it includes this lengthening of the inhale relative to the exhale with physical movement to perk us up.
The breath of joy is performed standing and includes three inhales for each exhale. The steps to performing this breath are as follows:
1st inhale: sweep arms in front of body to overhead, then lower
2nd inhale: sweep arms out to sides to level with shoulders, then lower
3rd inhale: sweep arms in front of body back to overhead
Exhale with a “HAAA” while sweeping arms down and bending over to allow arms to swing by knees
The YouTube video below may be helpful in seeing what this looks like. Notice how the expression on the face of the person performing the breath changes over the course of time. There is a reason this is called the Breath of Joy!
One of the eight arms of yoga is pranayama, the practice of controlling the breath. By controlling our breath in different ways, we can create different effects in the body.
One of my favorite of these breath techniques is alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana (literally, the sweet breath). This is a very simple breath practice to learn, but it has a number of very positive effects. As with all deep, nostril breathing, it is calming to the mind, which can help decrease anxiety and stress levels. In addition, by actively breathing through the different nostrils in turn, we balance the two sides of the brain for clearer thought.
Research indicates that as we breathe in through the right nostril, we promote activity in the left side of the brain that tends toward logical, analytical thought. As we breathe in through the left nostril, we promote activity in the right side of the brain that tends toward creative, intuitive thought. Throughout a normal day, our breathing naturally switches from one nostril to the other every four hours or so. The practice of switching nostrils for each breath as this practice does provides a more immediate balance between the two sides.
To perform alternate nostril breathing:
Gently curl the index and middle fingers of your right hand toward the base of your thumb. Place your thumb against the right side of your nose near the opening of the right nostril, and place your ring and little fingers against the left side of your nose near the opening of your left nostril.
Gently press with your thumb to close the right nostril, and inhale deeply through the left nostril.
Release the pressure on the right nostril, and gently press on the left nostril with your ring and little fingers to close the left nostril. Exhale completely through the right nostril.
Inhale deeply through the right nostril.
Release the pressure on the left nostril, and gently press on the right nostril with your thumb to close it. Exhale completely through the left nostril.
Inhale deeply through the left nostril.
Repeat steps 3-6 until you have completed the desired number of breaths, then remove your hand from your nose and allow your breath to return to normal.
To start with, aim for repeating the full cycle (steps 3-6) 5 to 10 times. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply to completely fill the lungs on each inhale and to exhale slowly and fully to completely empty the lungs each time. If possible, keep the length of the exhale as long as or slightly longer than the inhale, and only continue for as long as the breath remains slow and even. If at any time you are struggling to maintain an even breath, take a break.
I find this breathing technique to be a great help when I’m facing a stressful situation and need to calm and focus my thoughts. In addition, the calming focus on the breath can also be a great way to help me prepare for meditation. I hope you find it as helpful as I have!
For more information on this practice, read more at The Yoga Site.
When considering the best time of day in which to incorporate yoga into your schedule, keep in mind that it is generally recommended to wait one to two hours after eating a meal before practicing yoga asanas (postures) or pranayama (breathing practices). While this can make arranging your schedule a bit more challenging, there are several good reasons for this advice.
First, it takes energy to digest our food. When we exercise right after eating (and this is true of all kinds of exercise, not just yoga), our exercising muscles take energy away from our digestive tract, which interferes with the efficiency of the normal digestive process. In addition, the fact that our digestive system is competing with our muscles for blood flow and energy means that we will not be able to give our practice our best because we will feel more sluggish than usual.
Second, yoga postures involve moving our bodies in ways that can constrict various parts of our digestive tract during the movements. If our digestive tracts are relatively empty, this is not a problem. When it is full of broken down food, these temporary constrictions can cause pressure to build up at those places in the system as the digestive tract continues to try to push the food matter through as it normally would. This can cause discomfort and aggravate existing conditions, like diverticulitis.
On a practical level, eating shortly before your yoga practice can cause nausea, gas pains, bloating, discomfort, or the need to use the restroom during practice. All of these take away from your attention to your practice.
Of course, there will be times when you may find that it is necessary to eat something prior to your yoga practice due to scheduling issues or a feeling of low blood sugar. In these cases, try eating a small amount easily digestible foods, like applesauce, at least 30 minutes before your practice to get you through your time on the mat. Save larger meals for after your practice is complete.
Our breath is critical to life. Humans can go without food for a few weeks, without water for a few days, but without breath for only minutes. In fact, checking whether someone is still breathing is one way that we often check to see if someone is alive.
Given this crucial nature of breath to life, it is not surprising that humans have tended to think of breath as being like spirit as an animating force within us. The Hebrew scriptures used the word ruach, or breath, for spirit. Likewise, the Greek New Testament uses the word pneuma, again meaning breath, for spirit. And yoga speaks of prana as both breath and as vital life force, which could be thought of as another way to speak of our spirit. Each of these ancient traditions speaks of this same connection between our breath and our spirit.
In yoga, this connection between breath and our vital life force tends to be given greater emphasis through the discipline of pranayama, the science of controlling or disciplining the breath. By controlling our breath, we are able to also control the state of our vital life force, or spirit. There are breathe exercises that help to energize us, exercises that help to calm us, exercises to help balance us, and exercises to bring greater health and wholeness. The breath can also be used as means of focus during meditation.
We coordinate the breath with our movements during our asana (postures) practice by inhaling as our body expands and exhaling as our body contracts. In this way, our breath supports our movements and our movements facilitate deeper and fuller breathing. As we do this, the condition of our breath can inform us about whether we are moving too aggressively when our breathing becomes strained, and in this way it helps us to remain present to our own body’s needs in that moment.
As a beginning yoga student, I remember often ignoring the breathing cues that my teacher gave as we progressed through our asana practice. My focus was entirely on trying to master the postures. However, as I’ve grown into my practice over the years, I find that the coordination of breath and movement deepens my practice and makes it more fruitful.
“You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.” ~Sharon Gannon
We often speak of “doing yoga” when we speak of doing the physical postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama). Indeed, for many of us, these yoga exercises are where we start with yoga. However, we quickly find that yoga is much greater than the postures. Even without further study of the philosophy or precepts of yoga, it becomes apparent as we do the exercises that they are having much deeper effects on us than simple physical conditioning.
I like this reference to yoga as our natural state because I think much of what yoga attempts to do is to reverse much of the conditioning we have absorbed from our surrounding culture so that we can better become the authentic people that we were created to be. The physical postures and the breathing exercises do have great physical effects that can also lead to improved psychological and emotional health in and of themselves.
However, they also bring us back in touch with ourselves in such a way to allow us to access our deeper witness consciousness that enables us to observe ourselves and our thoughts in ways that do show us the places where we resist being our authentic selves. We see our fears, our wounds, our places of resistance, our unhealthy patterns (samskara).
Having seen these things, we can now have the choice to change them in ways that return us closer to the natural state of the person we are meant to be.