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December 10, 2014 by Francesca Baker
The idea that we don’t know how to do it properly is anathema to many of us. It’s one of those life skills that it is assumed that we do have, but is never really discussed. We do it nearly 26,000 times a day, so surely we should have nailed it by now. The very fact of being alive would seem to be evidence that we can do it. But are we doing it properly? ‘The thing is, no one ever teaches you how to breathe. And the first time they do, you are like ‘wow!’ So said one of my yogi friends over a coffee one morning. And she is right. There is a big difference between simply bringing in air and letting it out again, and the yoga concept of pranayama, the process of working with breath and vital energy to bring about mental clarity and consciousness. Pranayama is the conscious control, ayama, of prana, the vital energy. The intimate connection between the breath and the energy of our lives is one which cannot be ignored. By consciously manipulating the energy and force we are able to cleanse and strengthen the physical body and mind, reinforcing the intimate connection between the two. Breathing is about bringing in oxygen and dispelling toxins. Shortage of oxygen and an overabundance of toxins is not going to do us any good either physically or mentally. Deep breathing is both an instant stress alleviator and helps raise mental clarity and alertness. The breath has an immediate effect on the nervous system, which is why ‘deep breath’ is the instruction given to people when they are in tense or nervous states. Better breathing results in a more focused mind. Breathing properly results in reduced tension levels, and consequently a decreased likelihood of depression and anxiety. And it’s not just about the mind. We can consciously use breathing to influence the involuntary (sympathetic nervous system) that regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, digestion and many other bodily functions. Full and deep breathing increases the level of oxygen going to our cells, boosting energy. When the body is nourished, metabolism is increased, and elimination of toxins occurs to a greater degree. Circulation is boosted, and the muscles become more able to move through poses, and through the day. There are different ways in which yoga teachers encourage ‘correct’ breathing, including using one nasal passage at a time, sitting with your hand on your stomach, and the short, sharp ujayi breath, which means ‘victorious’ in Sanskrit. However, the main tenets are all the same. Inhalation is caused by the diaphragm moving downward, creating vacuum in chest cavity, and air rushing in to fill it. When the diaphragm moves upward, air is pushed out, causing exhalation. Essentially we want to make these movements slower and deeper. Melissa Grabau, author and wellbeing expert, describes pranamaya, as the ‘subtle buzz of life that animates you.’ This beautiful articulation of the basic process of breathing demonstrates just how important it is to our body, mind and spirit. We may have been doing it from the beginning, but do we know how to do it properly? Now is the time to try.