Embracing the Present
Breath is life. Our individuality begins with an inhalation. During the span of a lifetime, we respire about a half billion times, exchanging our personal molecules with the molecules of our environment through the inflow and outflow of our breath. With each breath, we release trillions of molecules that belonged to us, and we assume temporary ownership of trillions of molecules that previously belonged to some other living being. Breathing is an essential recycling of life energy. At the end of our life, we exhale our last breath, and our individuality returns to the universal.
In Ayurveda and yoga, the breath is intimately associated with vital energy, known in Sanskrit as prana. According to ancient yogic texts, prana is “the flight of a bird, rising from earth to heaven, tied to a golden filament.” The earth represents our core survival needs as symbolized by the root chakra, called muladhara. Heaven is the intuitive center residing in the brain, known as ajna, in which our individuality has access to cosmic creativity. The filament represents the channel through which our ego is connected with our soul. Our breath is the delicate yet powerful thread that weaves together our environment, senses, body, mind, and soul. Effortless breathing is a hallmark of healthy integration between the layers of our being.
Our Breath Mirrors Our Mind
The mind and breath are inextricably interwoven. Our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts can be influenced by our breath. The next time you find yourself feeling anxious and thinking worried thoughts, notice how your breath reflects the turbulence you’re experiencing. On the other end of the spectrum, many studies of meditation have found that a quiet mind translates into quiet breathing.
Learning to consciously regulate the breath is a valuable tool for helping to reestablish calm, balance, and vitality. When we are infants and young children, we breathe naturally and efficiently, but as we grow up, we often learn to restrict our natural enthusiasm, which is reflected in constricted breathing patterns. Instead of breathing deeply into our abdomens as we did as babies, we start to breathe primarily in our chests, where we store stress and tension.
Restoring our Natural Breathing Patterns
Regulation of the breath is called pranayama. There are many different pranayama exercises that can be used to energize, soothe, and calm the mind and body. The core pranayama exercise is to consciously take a deep breath into the abdomen. A slow, deep inhalation followed by a slow, complete exhalation awakens the relaxation side of the involuntary nervous system and restores the memory of wholeness.
The present moment is not always easy to accept, but learning to listen to the sensations in our body and the message they are sending will calm our emotional turbulence and ultimately will enable us to benefit from the experience. The following process can help you let go of resistance and constriction and open to higher states of harmony, creativity, and joy in the present moment:
Here is how to practice abdominal breathing:
- Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down.
- Loosen your belt or any other clothing that would prevent you from freely moving your belly.
- Place your hands on your abdomen, just below your naval, and take several slow, deep breaths into your belly, feeling your hand rise and fall with each inhale and exhale.
- As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles to empty your lungs a bit further. As you become more comfortable, you can remove your hand from your belly and continue deep breathing with your eyes closed.
- To deepen your relaxation, try using a simple mantra. On each inhale, silently repeat the word I, and as you exhale, silently repeat the word am. Continue this pattern for a few minutes, gently repeating “I . . . am . . . I . . . am . . .”
Throughout the day, take a few moments and pay attention to your breath. Consciously slow down your breathing and notice its effect on your mind and body. Whenever you find yourself holding onto tension or resistance, take a few deep abdominal breaths to restore your balance. Allow your breathing to awaken your witnessing awareness, reminding you that you are in this world, but not of this world.