Our breath is one of the most powerful tools we have to calm our mind and connect to our deeper self. You most probably know how soothing it is to stop for a moment during the day and just exhale deeply. We do it mostly unconsciously, to take a break. Some people take it even a bit further and make a sound at the exhale. My dad has the habit of sighing sometimes throughout the day. He likes to joke about this and says that it feels good to ‘complain a bit from time to time’, but I think it is soothing to sigh from time to time.
Breath is one of the functions in our body that we don’t pay attention to, it happens by itself. Unfortunately, because of the pace at which most of us are living, our breath tends to be short and shallow, especially on the exhales, and it becomes a vicious cycle: because we are stressed, we constrain our breath, and because we constrain our breath, we feel tired and stressed.
In the yoga tradition, the mind and the breath are intrinsically connected. When the mind is relaxed, the breath is balanced and easy, when the mind is agitated, the breath is imbalanced and effortful. So by breathing evenly and smoothly, we calm the mind, and by consciously working with calming the mind, we keep our breath nice and easy.
By focusing on our breath, we bring the mind to the present moment, and by being in the present moment, we can slow down our thoughts and tackle any situation more skilfully. Like with almost anything, it takes practice to learn to smooth our breath and thereby our mind. Here are two very simple exercises that you can practice at home or anywhere. Remember that the more you practice something, the more it becomes part of you and the easier it is to bring it forward when you need it.
Create a habit. As with anything new you introduce to your daily routine, try to keep it simple and start with two to three minutes before you go to bed, or before you get out of bed (or both). As it becomes a habit, you can then add more minutes to your morning/evening practice and even include another session as a break from your everyday life if you have the space.
Prepare for breathing. Keep it simple, sit on a chair if you are more comfortable, or at the edge of your bed (you don’t need to sit on the floor on lotus pose to practice breathing consciously). Just try to keep your back straight, shoulders relaxed and your gaze soft by not fixing your eyes on anything, at the same time as you don’t move your sight from one object to another. If you feel comfortable with closing your eyes, close your eyes. If sitting straight without support is challenging for your back, sit with your back against the back of the chair or the wall, but be conscious of not slouching. It takes some practice to find a good sitting position that keeps you awake and energised at the same time as relaxed. Be patient and curious with yourself, experiment a bit and find your perfect position. Keep both feet well grounded on the floor, hands relaxed on your thighs or knees.
You might want to lie down if you do this right before going to sleep, the challenge is that you might fall asleep right away which is good for your sleep, but not good for the practice of breathing. So be clear with yourself, what is the purpose of your session? If it is to help you fall asleep, then go for it, but if it is to practice being aware of and soothing your breath, then sit.
I like to use a timer because I otherwise keep checking the clock to see when I’m done and this distracts me too much. I use an app called Insight Timer because I don’t like the sounds of the regular timer on my mobile. You can find Insight Timer for free on any app store.
Breathing exercise 1: Inhale with the nose and exhale with the mouth. Inhale slowly, smoothly and deeply through your nose, and allow yourself to exhale through your mouth. Make sure that you breathe out completely before you start inhaling again. Pay attention to your body as you breath and avoid lifting your shoulders and tensing your chest as you inhale. Deep breaths are not supposed to feel stressful for your body, on the contrary, you should feel that at each exhale, your body melts a little bit more.
Breathing exercise 2: Inhale counting to three or four, exhale counting to three or four. To even the breath. During this breathing exercise, you will inhale and exhale through your nose. Exhale completely, and then as you inhale count slowly in your head to three, four or five, depending on what feels good for you. Finish your inhale and slowly start exhaling counting equally to either three, four or five. Make sure you gradually start making your inhales and exhales even. It is quite common to start with counts of three or four, and as you practice more, you will notice that you can count a bit longer. As with the previous exercise, pay attention to your body while you’re breathing. Avoid stressing your shoulders and your chest. Again, as you breathe in imagine you become lighter and taller , and as you exhale feel every part of your body relaxing.
Once you feel comfortable with the rhythm of your breath on either of these two exercises, notice what happens to your mind. It will most probably start wondering around, that is ok. That is what the mind is supposed to do, but gently and without judgement, bring it back to what you are doing right now: breathing. If you have had a tough day and you are experiencing stress or any difficult emotion, try to be with it as you are with your breath. Your mind will constantly go back to creating stories about what happened, and why and blah blah blah but again, kindly and gently bring your mind back to your breath and the sensations in your body. Don’t worry, this stress/distress, will eventually go away. Be patient.
As with anything, these two exercises require practice in order to be almost part of your system. The more you practice, the more aware you can be, the more they bring you back to your core which is a calm and safe place. Be patient, be kind to yourself and take it easy.