Using the Breath to Elevate Your Experience
Whether you’re looking for a way to shake off the dreaded midday slump or calm your nerves when things feel overwhelming, take comfort in knowing that all the tools you need already exist within you. The breath, part of our autonomic nervous system, is with you every single second of the day whether you are aware of it or not. Breath techniques provide us with thoughtful and imaginative ways to clean out the body’s cobwebs, stimulate the nervous system, oxygenate the blood, and soothe our senses when the time is right. Bringing consciousness into your breath can result in some of the most powerful and transformative effects a person can experience, regardless of skill set or familiarity with yoga.
Breath practices give you the power to pick yourself up when you’re feeling lethargic, animate your creative imagination when the mind feels numb, and calm yourself when you need to feel at-ease. Try incorporating one or more of the practices below into your daily routine to equip yourself with a new tool to manipulate your circumstances. When you have tools to mediate your experiences, you give yourself new ways to inhabit your world, so that you never feel stuck and you always have the option to be self-empowered.
Before you get started, it’s important to be aware of the way you’re sitting; whether at a desk or seated on the floor, you want to be in a position that is comfortable and upright. If sitting on the floor, sit up on a block or a blanket so that you can tilt the pelvis forward and perch yourself on top of your perineum as opposed to sitting back on your tailbone. If you’re sitting in a chair, make sure that both feet are on the floor with the knees right over your ankles. Having an upright seat will allow the lungs to move forward in the body so that the breath is enjoyable and not arduous.
Skull Shining Breath (Kapalbhati)
Skull Shinging Breath is a cleansing and energizing breath technique. It serves to oxygenate the blood and whip up the nerves to leave you feeling refreshed and alert. It can be practiced at anytime of day but may be especially beneficial in the morning or late afternoon as a way to wake yourself up.
Sit with the arms up overhead, separated into a wide V-shape with the palms facing up toward the ceiling, cupped slightly. Take a round of normal breath in and out through the nose to set up a clear beginning for the practice. Then, inhale about three quarters of the way in through the nose and begin pumping the breath out through the nostrils. As you pump the exhales out through your nose, you’ll feel the belly button and abdominal muscles snap up and in toward the spine, clearly articulating the breath moving out-out-out. Count anywhere from 50 to 100 rounds of breath, but be precise in the number of breaths you want to do. Pick whatever number you want and hold yourself accountable so that once you reach the finish line you can feel the satisfaction of achievement in completing what you set out to do.
Bellows Breath (Bhastrika)
Bellows breath provides another way to stimulate personal fire and energy in the body. Similar to the Skull Shining breath, Bhastrika focuses on the exhale but also contains an equally forceful inhalation. Both the inhale and exhale move in and out through the nose in equal, forceful measure.
Sit with your hands on your hips (or, if sitting on the floor in virasana as pictured, sit cupping the heels of the feet) thus giving yourself a grip on your lower body. As you inhale, tilt the pelvis forward, as you exhale, tilt the pelvis back. You’ll continue this rocking motion linked to the rhythm and speed of your breath. Know that you can manipulate the speed of the breath to make it faster or slower to suit whatever it is you need. If you’re in the office, moving sluggishly through a long day, get yourself going by inhaling and exhaling quickly. Conversely, if you’ve been sprinting from one meeting to the next, take the breath slowly so you can rehearse moving through the rest of your day at a different pace.
Any self-empowerment practice is about giving yourself more options for moving about your life. To be well-rounded you need to have a ton of different techniques. If you always move fast in your life, incorporate practices that teach you to move slowly, and vice versa. It’s not that one is better than the other, you want to be able to have technique at your disposal so that you know how to move slowly when you want to savor the present moment and how to move swiftly when you need to get things done.
The Breath in Equal Parts (Sama Vritti)
All breath practices are about breathing with intention; connecting the imagination to the breath to observe the way it moves through the body. Sama Vritti contains the inhale and exhale working together for equal counts (for example: inhaling for four counts and exhaling for four counts) in a smooth, continuous pattern. Attach your mind to the breath count so that each exhale mirrors the length of the inhale and vice versa.
As you move through a sama vritti breath, let your ears hear the sound of your inhalation and exhalation. The sound of the breath is the most calming sound to the body; it’s the best way to soothe the adrenals and quiet the nerves. Even if you aren’t breathing audibly, imagine the sound of it. Let your breath be both personal and bigger than yourself, so that you can wrap yourself within it. Surround yourself with the breath like being surrounded by the sound of the ocean; observe its rhythm like you might hear a wave crashing onto the shore and then rolling back out to sea.