If I told you there was an exercise so powerful that within a couple of minutes of practice it could lower your heart rate, boost your digestion and improve your sleep and that this same exercise practiced to the extreme can have hallucinogenic effects and create out-of-body experiences, would you know what exercise I was talking about? It’s called breathing!
Breathing for most of us is totally automatic, governed by our autonomic nervous system, it happens all by itself. However, we can override our natural breath, and if we know how, we can create an effect within a few minutes of practice.
For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, it’s one of the most powerful tools for modulating our nervous system, and yet it continues to be misunderstood and neglected in most health circles. It’s easier than meditation, the benefits are immediate, and even a beginner can impact their nervous system dramatically in as little as 10 breaths.
I’ve been teaching breath work for many years as part of my yoga classes but I would encourage everyone, even those who have no interest in yoga to consider working with their breath. Very short breathing practices of 2 minutes a couple of times a day, can make a huge difference to how we feel and to our overall health.
For example, a balanced breathing practice is one you can use anytime you need balance in your life. After a chaotic journey/commute, a stressful work call, a balanced breath practice will calm you down. When you’re feeling the afternoon slump, ready to reach for a coffee a balanced breath practice will lift you up and leave you feeling energized and ready to get on with what needs doing. Like taking a sip of water throughout the day to stay hydrated, brief balancing breathing practices will help steady your nervous system, so you can respond and get things done.
A calming breath practice on the other hand will always downregulate the nervous system, it can make you feel soporific and groggy so this is the technique you want to use right before bed. At night when I’m finishing work, my phone lights up with notifications and my mind is buzzing, this type of breathing is a fantastic aid to sleep.
Short breathing practices are part of my self-care routine, just like drinking water to stay hydrated, they’re how I look after myself. If you feel you could benefit from learning to harness your breath to help you to feel better, sleep better and get more done, there are plenty of resources online, you could look for a yoga teacher who teaches pranayama or you could look for a breath coach. Breathing practices are easy to learn and the effects are more predictable than meditation or drugs and they are of course much safer. In my next article, I will describe an easy balancing breath practice that you can start to use straight away.
Take care of yourself, Clair.