Did you have a bad day at the office? Did your boss yell at you, or a client threaten to leave or maybe you were close to blowing a really big deal? In any case, you are now all stressed out. You’ve been staring at your desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone screens for hours on end to the point where everything is a blur.
While you would like to meditate or do yoga, you have to calm down first. Sure, you can take a walk around the block, but then what?
Have you considered conscious breathing?
We begin and end our lives with a breath, whether conscious or not. Like our heartbeats, our system keeps breathing until our time has come. We take millions of breaths throughout our years, but very few are deliberate and conscious. We rarely give our entire attention to the simple process of breathing.
We have been gifted with the ability to override our autonomic nervous system in the case of our lungs, but not our heart. Just by throwing our attention on our breathing, we can slow it down with deeper and deeper breaths. When we are upset, our heart pounds and we have shallow breathing. At any time, we can override this process by slowing down our breaths down.
Most of us breathe through the upper lungs, fast and shallow. With yogic training, we learn to start with our stomach, go up the rib cage and into the upper part of our chest. When we exhale, we can push all the air out of our system, even squeezing the abdominal muscles. This results in a very deep in-breath.
Going back to our days in the jungle, we developed a fight-or-flight response to any sign of immanent danger, such as a tiger crouching behind a bush. We had but an instant to make a life-or-death decision. So our sympathetic nervous system took over. It shot cortisol and adrenaline into our blood, instantly revving up our metabolism. Our heart pounded, our breathing was shallow and we were prepared to sprint to the nearest tree.
By conscious breathing, we can reverse the entire cycle, reducing our heart rate, lowering our blood pressure and relaxing our muscles. As we breathe deep, we slow down our thought process, drastically reducing the monkey chatter. Our cells become oxygenated, boosting our immune system. Our emotional turbulence begins to subside, and we recover a sense of peace.
Conscious breathing can give us a greater sense of presence. We feel more relaxed and energized at the same time, as if we had just awoken from a night of deep and profoundly satisfying sleep. This type of breathing is the perfect antidote to insomnia. It also is an indispensable component of any spiritual practice.
In ancient times, the breath was considered sacred, the counterpart of the blood in our bodies. Our physical life was in our blood, and our spiritual life was in our breath. In Hebrew, the word for breath, Ruah, also means wind and spirit. In the Garden of Eden, God breathes into the clay figurine until Adam becomes a conscious being.
The Vedic word is pranayama, or breath control, the fourth limb in the Eightfold Path of Yoga, as essential as meditation. Prana in India is the counterpart of Chi in China and Ki in Japan. In Hawaii, it is known as Mana. It is associated with sacred energy. It is closely linked to Kundalini Yoga, which is about raising the goddess from the base of the spine up to the crown of the head. As the “serpent” rises up the spine, all our chakras become activated until we united with God just above our head.
Conscious breathing has a profoundly cleansing effect. In one of the Gospel accounts of the resurrected Christ, He actually breathes on His apostles. This would prove, not only that He rose from the dead, but also that He was imparting His sacred presence and power to them. In our more enlightened moments, we realize that every beat of our heart and every conscious breath is a gift of God.
Most days, we will encounter a situation that is highly stressful, perhaps a lot of distracting environmental noise or pollutants. We may find ourselves chasing digital device after digital device, moving from one screen to another, the pace can be frantic. We may simply be under a deadline to get an important project for a client out by end of day. We completely forget to breathe.
In any situation, you can always pause for five minutes and take three or more deep, full breaths. There is nothing we can do to change our physiology faster. When we consciously breathe, it immediately slows down our mental chatter. Since we couldn’t breathe when we learned to talk, by deliberately breathing it blocks our thought flow. Our heart rate drops, our blood pressure falls and our muscles begin to relax.
If we are in an emotionally draining situation, such as an argument with a coworker, customer, boss or spouse, we can stop defending ourselves and start to take several full breaths. We will suddenly find ourselves more present to others. Whenever you stress out, simply take a conscious breathing break.
Stop. Take several deep breaths. You will suddenly find yourself more present to others.
There are a number of breathing patterns, taken from yoga, martial arts, athletics and calisthenics. It is very important in performance situations to notice when and how to breathe, so that you can get into a cadence. Several different breathing techniques suggest themselves.
1. The Yogic Full Breath:
When you are doing yoga, standing, sitting or even lying down, and you really want to take in the air and oxygenate your cells, the yogic breath hits the spot. You begin with your stomach and expand your diaphragm to fill up your stomach, and then proceed to your rib cage. From your rib cage you breathe into your upper chest, hold for a moment, and then exhale. You exhale first your upper chest, then your rib cage, then your diaphragm, squeezing your abdominal muscles to let every bit of air out. This cycle results in extraordinarily deep breaths. You can do several at a time, but don’t overdo it. You want to avoid getting light-headed and dizzy.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing:
When seated, either while doing yoga, or proceeding into meditation or prayer, alternate nostril breathing can lead rapidly to a profound sense of peace, even bliss. You close a nostril; let’s say your right, and breath in your left nostril to the count of four. You then close the left nostril and hold your breath to the count of seven. You then open the right nostril, and exhale to the count of eight.
Repeat this sequence four to eight times, morning and evening. Over a few days, it will have a cumulative effect, immediately putting you into a serene state.
3. Energetic Breathing:
Kundalini yoga features what is known as the bellows breath, or “breath of fire.” This is a powerful technique to rapidly raise your energy. It is not recommended for people subject to panic attack, or other disorders. Typically seated, you proceed to contract and relax your stomach in rapid sequence so that it operates much like a bellows. Initially, do this for a very short while, and then work up to a greater length of time. Listen to your body and never force yourself.
For over a decade, I have done prayerful meditation once or twice a day as a spiritual practice. I read sacred and devotional literature from around the world in a contemplative mood. I then close my eyes and do alternate nostril breathing four times, left and right.
I find that my mind dramatically slows down, and I enter into a blissful space. I consciously call on God with my own mantra, and immediately experience His presence. Since I was raised in a Western Faith, His name falls within the Abrahamic tradition. However, the manner in which I meditate and pray might be considered definitely Hindu.
During this process, I immediately experience the Divine Presence. I talk to God simply, much like a little child. My focus is on blessing people and nations. I believe God already knows what we need, but I find that blessing others immediately touches them in inexplicable ways. I am certain that many people have been healed, no matter what distance might separate us.
I also have increasingly felt a flush of divine love that goes beyond explanation. This love seems unconditional and infinite. It comes out of the deepest part of me, and spontaneously flows towards others. I feel a close correlation with the meditation, breath and prayer. This technique has had a stunning cumulative effect that truly amazes me.
Dr. Deepak Chopra is the true pioneer of mind / body medicine, who has done more than almost anyone else to promote meditation, as well as ayurvedic healing. Deepak was personally selected by Maharishi as a possible successor in the Transcendental Meditation movement and was very close to him for several years. Deepak learned many techniques of the master, which he now imparts to others.
Dr. Chopra is joined by Amanda Ringnalda, who has worked with him for nearly 20 years and is certified both as a Primordial Sound Meditation Instructor, as well as an Ayurvedic Healer. Together, they combine to teach a very affordable online class, “Breathwork for Well-Being,” drawing upon video, articles and other resources.
Conscious breathing cannot easily be mastered by words. Sharing the presence of accomplished masters under their careful guidance developed out of decades of practice is a rare privilege. You might want to take a close look at their offering.
Wherever your destiny lies, you will find conscious breathing an incomparable friend, a simple and easy way to find peace.