These days we hear all about yoga… power yoga, hot yoga, urban yoga, sports yoga, yoga for golfers, tennis players, swimmers, runners, walkers, sleepers, children, seniors, naked yoga; and the list goes endlessly on and on.
If you are a senior and you are just waking up to the realization that you can no longer bend over to tie your shoelace or hook your Velcro, you might also be wondering how you could ever imagine yourself doing this highly popularized craze that dates back to ancient India, or where you might even be able to fit in attempting some of those pretzel-like exercises called Yoga.
I have been doing yoga since I was nineteen and now I am definitely in my fifties. To my amazement in the last ten years, yoga trends have moved from a quiet, hidden, thoughtful approach to stress reduction, using gentle stretches, strengthening exercises and breath awareness, to a very aggressive, highly competitive, aerobic sweat shop that has hit every spa and health club in every town and city in the USA. People curious about yoga are finding it very intimidating to enter an overheated, overcrowded yoga class that is, more like boot camp than what the yogis of India intended in their quest for inner truth and health through a daily yoga practice.
So, how is a seasoned citizen who is curious to experience the benefits that yoga has traditionally promoted and is presently claiming as a national cure-all find a friendly and tangible beginning approach to studying yoga in today’s highly yoga competitive climate?
We always have heard that the teacher is “within” and that the body is the temple. I am encouraging every able bodied person looking for a place to begin yoga to find the most available source of yoga that we have every minute of the day AND THAT IS YOUR BREATH.
The word “respiration” means to inspire again and again from within; in other words bringing spirit back to the body for renewal not just once but over and over again.
Breathing is the true gift of life that we have regardless if we are beggars on the street, Wall Street traders, or yoga masters. No matter if we are aware of it or not. Naturally we take our breathing for granted, that is, until our lung capacity is diminished, until we find that we are easily out of breath doing daily activities, where in the past the same activity would not have even fazed us. The yoga practice of Breathing (known as Pranayama) is simply the means of becoming more aware of your breath and of the magical effects that deep breathing brings to your body, your energy, and to your mind. This simple practice will reveal how deep breathing is the foundation of health as well as the gateway for entering into the beginning stages of practicing the very ancient youth restoring art of yoga.
So many students avoid breathing practice in classes and many teachers fail to teach it because it continues to remain one of the mysterious and subtle teachings of yoga.
There is no mystery in the breath. The real mystery is to ask why we don’t breathe. To explore how the breath reflects something much deeper and reflective than the shallow breath most people live with.
In the oriental study of health and healing, the emotion connected to the Lungs is deep grief. This emotional stress can begin at a very young age or sneak up on us as we get older and have more and more responsibilities and disappointments.
Since the lungs reflect and react to deep grief the posture reflecting this grief may show as sunken chest, rounded shoulders, and a collapsed upper back. In turn causing degrees of neck tension, headaches, as well as creating a very shallow space for the heart. Because of the complex process of respiration, the lack of a full breath over time creates tightness around the heart, heaviness in the upper body, and tightness of the diaphragm which, in turn, puts stress on the lower back and sacrum, affecting our ability to stand up straight which adds to the lack of breath capacity.
It is a Catch 22 when these muscles are so tight that breathing into the entire lung space becomes very difficult, and if you don’t breathe fully then the muscles remain tight.
When a student begins to practice deep breathing, they can feel the subtle affects of a deep breath if they are not used to breathing freely. Oftentimes, while assisting a student or friend to lift up out of their slump, by lifting and expanding their chest, I have witnessed them get dizzy from the increased oxygenation. This reveals that posture alone will affect one’s breathing.
The practice of deep breathing can turn this physical and emotional challenge around.
I always suggest to my students in the early stages of their yoga practice to “keep it simple.” Begin with just one pose. One pose can change your whole day.
Likewise with the practice of waking up to the breath I suggest to simply become aware of your breathing. While walking, in conversation, or at work you have the opportunity to observe the changes in your breathing. Start to notice how the breath is affected in different social situations. In conflict and in pleasure the breath reflects your state of mind as it is in that very moment.
A daily morning practice of 10 minutes of balanced deep- breathing, simply inhaling and exhaling, will increase your physical and mental energy. The space in the spine, ribs, and chest will begin to expand and a sense of calm and peacefulness will improve your mood.
The practice of Yoga postures creates the space for greater breath capacity. Doing simple shoulder and chest movements that brings flexibility to the upper chest and open the lungs will open the door for more natural deep breathing.
Begin your breathing awareness exercises lying down on your back. It is helpful to lie on top of a folded blanket under your upper back to allow your chest extra space. Begin with observing how you breathe. Are you a mouth breather or a nose breather? If you breathe through your mouth it is important to get into the habit of breathing through your nose. Breathing through your mouth lets bacteria and germs enter your body without the filtering system of the nostrils. Breathing through your mouth also dries out the throat, and unlike nose breathing, does not warm the breath.
Begin to notice at what point your breath gets tight. Observe the sound and sensation of the air moving through your lungs. Observe the balance between your inhalation and exhalation. As you relax those areas that show tightness, your breathing also will begin to expand and miraculously you will find yourself feeling more calm and relaxed. Continue this process until you feel a more easeful flow of your breath. From here, begin to count to yourself the length of your inhale and exhale. The breathing cycle is simply a complete breath in and a complete breath out. Find a comfortable count for your breathing rhythm. Proceed to inhale and exhale with a workable count. You may begin with a 6 or 8 seconds per breath and after some time and practice you will be able to extend your count as you go along.
It is important to take care not to feel any strain while doing your deep breathing. With regular practice, you will begin to experience an increase in your lung capacity. This will be the invitation to increase your timing. Practice this simple breathing exercise on walks, while waiting for the bus, or at the market, workplace, etc. As you practice deep breathing, your posture will improve, back aches will begin to disappear, and your mental attitude will be uplifted.
This process may seem too simple. As you stop to take the time to begin your practice you may note the profound shift your mind moves to. You also will notice the increase in muscle activity in your back, chest and ribcage. In the beginning when you are noticing your breathing you will have to think about lifting your chest up. In time you will be surprised to feel how the power of deep breathing will be the support that keeps your upper body lifted.
Now, with a deep inhalation, your personal journey with yoga can easily begin regardless of your age, your environment, or your physical limitations. Without intimidation or a flexible body your world will now open and expand with each new breath that you take. This is the simple beginning of a new awareness into the essence that is the support for life itself. Tapping on this doorway can lead to a magical journey into the mysterious world of the unquestionable gift which is the life force that is present and available within each and every one of us.
- Observe your breath
- Balance your breath
- Follow your breath from the beginning to the completion of each inhale and exhale
- Feel the transformation to a calmer state of mind.