We all breathe. Otherwise, you know, we'd be dead. But how many of us breathe consciously? This may seem like a strange concept, because breathing is autonomic, passive, but why do we let something that has the power to dramatically improve our overall health and lifespan just happen to us?
"A yogi measures the span of life by the number of breaths, not by the number of years" - Swami Sivananda
Interestingly, it is said that the less breaths a person takes, the more years they live. This, of course makes sense, because slower breathing lowers blood pressure, which in turn leads to longer life. And the person who is taking more time over their breathing, is most likely doing so because they are doing so mindfully.
So, how do we breathe mindfully? Obviously no one is going to spend every waking minute observing and contemplating every breath they take (apart from maybe a small group of Buddhist monks), but if you can spare even 5 minutes a day for something yogis refer to as Pranayama, you can vastly improve the quality of your breathing, and subsequently your life.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that, like most Sanskrit words, translates to describe literally what it means:
PRANA + YAMA
The word yama literally translates to 'control', but the word prana can't be translated quite so literally into English. The closest we can get is 'life force', or 'vital energy', but for the purpose of bringing the practice into the realm of our understanding, prana is contained in our breath. So, in a sense, Pranayama can be understood as breath control. There are various ways of doing this; breath retention, rapid breathing etc. and for a yoga newbie it can be a lot to take in, so I'll tell you about my favourite one, and the one which I think has the most noticeable effects.
Nadi Shodhan Pranayama, or (more easy to remember) alternate nostril breathing, has been a real game changer for me. It is believed to balance out the two sides of the brain, and, as someone who is naturally heavily right-brained, this serves me really well. It's a subtle practice that makes a big difference. I often find myself, and anyone who knows me well will attest to this, 'all over the shop' in terms of my attention span and thought processes, sometimes struggling to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. When I incorporated this Pranayama technique into my daily routine, I noticed a real change in this department - I gained what felt like 10 acres of head space. This takes literally less than 5 minutes, but can also be practiced for longer, and before meditating, if that's something you do.
1. Sit in a comfortable seated position (yoga matters do really great little meditation pillows that help you comfortably sit straight! http://www.yogamatters.com/yogamatters-crescent-meditation-cushion.html)
2. Rest the left hand on the left knee
3. Close the index finger and the middle finger to the palm of the right hand to make a Vishnu mudra (see image below)
4. Close the right right nostril with the thumb, and inhale through the left
5. At the end of the inhalation, close the left nostril with the fourth finger and release the thumb, exhaling through the right
6. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right
7. Close the right nostril, and exhale through the left, continuing the cycle of 'exhale-inhale'
Practice for about 5 mins every morning. You're welcome!