We breathe automatically.
We don’t even have to think about it. Sometimes, we take a deep breath in and sigh it out, but otherwise, we have let our breathing just be in “sleep mode.” Our breath has become automatic—and not in a good way. We breathe short and shallow then wonder why we can’t catch our breath, or why there is difficulty in breathing. No wonder breath work is gaining popularity.
People are tuning into this practice to literally learn how to breathe. And on that note, let’s start with the basic anatomy of breathing: Air draws in through the nostrils, down the throat, and into the lungs, which inflate and can cause the entire torso to expand. Exhaling reverses the order and presses all the air out. Once the fundamentals of how to breathe properly are expressed, the real work begins. Depending on what is happening in your everyday life, a breath work practitioner can guide you through any number of exercises. This new focus on the breath is very close to meditation and can induce a lot of the same sensations: A calmer state of being, a greater self-confidence, and clearing out old patterns.
Breath work may be the new meditation, but it carries the same variety that meditation offers, and, therefore, options for any level of experience.
Here, three common breath work exercises to try.
1. Basic breath. This basic breath is how we all are born breathing, slow and steady with a pause between. Use this exercise for relearning what it is like to be present. When we get anxious about the future or caught in the loop of the past, this basic breath puts us front and center in the present, all else falling away.
Find a comfortable seat or lie on the floor. Shrug the shoulders, open and close the mouth, close the eyes as you begin to turn your awareness to your breath. Watch the breath; how it moves in and out of the body. Note whether it is shallow or deep, smooth or rugged. Start to bring more attention to your exhalation. Focus on how there is a natural pause after the exhale and before the inhale. Linger in the pause a bit longer before drawing the next inhalation. Without force, try to make this pause up to three seconds long. Inhaling smoothly and fully. Exhaling and emptying all the way out. Pausing for as long as is comfortable, working up to a three- to five-second pause. Let all else clear from your mind. Breathing slowly and naturally while exploring the pause between.
Utilize this exercise for five to ten minutes daily until it becomes second nature.
2. Three-part yogic breath. This exercise helps to explore breath control, as well as how to move our breath into the three parts of the torso: Upper chest, lower ribs/upper belly, and lower belly. We sip the breath in three times, pausing between each sip in. At first, it may feel like a challenge to separate the three parts of the torso, but with the directing of our mind over time the body responds properly.
This breath work practice can be used to open the heart space and allow more love to move through you. It can also be used to gain more self-confidence as the body reacts to the openness it feels.
Lie down on the floor with a pillow under the knees and/or under the head. Close your eyes and bring awareness to your breath. Slow it down, let it become smooth and steady. On the next inhale, sip in about 1/3 of the air of your slow steady breath and focus on your heart space/upper chest expanding. Pause. Sip in another third of your breath, feeling the lower ribs/upper belly expand. Pause. Sip in the last third of your breath, feeling the belly expand. Pause. Exhale fully and completely in one steady stream. It may take a few rounds of this practice to get into a nice rhythm, do not give up. Keep sipping in slowly, pause between each third and feeling the torso expand. Exhaling in one steady stream. After three to seven minutes of this exercise, begin to breathe normally again: one long inhale, one long exhale. Pausing between each only if it comes naturally. Notice any sensations that arrive.
Allow yourself a few minutes to steady the breath before getting up and continuing with your day. Try this exercise daily for a week to see your confidence soar and your connection to self become stronger. (Check out a how-to video here.)
3. Kapalabhati or “Breath of Fire”. This style of breath work is popular in yoga studios because of its heat building sensations. Not only does this breathing exercise build heat in the body, it is excellent for clearing subconscious patterns or beliefs. Often, we hold these subconscious beliefs in our lower body, so the focus here is a short quick exhale. The inhalation draws in naturally after we contract the belly to force the exhale out.
Find a comfortable seat, either cross-legged or at the wall. Close the eyes and steady your breath. Once the breath is slow and steady, take a full inhale in and squeeze the belly to force the breath out the nose. Allow the inhale to come in quickly before forcing the air out the nose again. All attention is on the exhale, a sharp and quick exhale. You do not have to go quickly though. You are aiming for at least 50 exhales in a minute, more if you find a good rhythm. If you lose focus, come back to the exhale. If you start to feel light-headed, slow down. Again, this is not about speed, it is about pumping the belly to force the exhale which stirs up the energy stuck in the lower back and belly. The first time you try this exercise, start with three to five minutes, slowly over time you can build up to a 10-minute practice.
Once finished with the exercise, take a full breath in and a full, slow exhale. Find your steady breath and notice any sensations that have come. Stay with your slow, steady breath for a few minutes before opening your eyes and continuing with your day. A daily practice of “Breathe of Fire” can build heat in the body during the winter months as well as help clear up old habits we are looking to break. As with the others, try it for a week and notice how you feel.
Our breath is powerful. Not only do we need to breathe to live, but it can be an amazing practice to change our life and habits. From the first breath we take when we are born to the last exhale we make as we pass on, our breath can bring us present, can connect us to our hearts and souls, and can help clear the way. It is just a matter getting out of “sleep mode” and bringing attention to how we breathe. Whether you explore these simple practices in addition to your meditation practice or seek out local practitioners to help customize a practice unique to you, starting to add a daily breath work practice can begin a change toward being a more present and fulfilled person.
** If you are pregnant, it is not recommended to hold the breath. Please consult your physician or a breath work practitioner if you have asthma, low or high blood pressure, or any other health concerns that may need a second opinion as to whether or not a breath work practice is right for you.**
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