As the ocean is fundamental to the natural state of our earth, breath is likewise fundamental to life.
As your last breath passes so too will your last thought. It has been said many times that breath mirrors the mind. When we are breathing fast and short due to excitement - either negative or positive - the mind tends to be overactive and hasty with many thoughts.
So, when we consciously slow down our breath, our mind also becomes slower and tranquil and it feels as if we are being given more space to think clearly, or even be released from our thoughts - momentarily.
It's easy to take our breath for granted. In our normal healthy state, it flows in a natural cyclical manner, without drawing our attention towards it. However, when we find ourselves struggling to breathe, we are made aware of the true value of our breath.
I'm sure you've had one of those moments when you're so scared that you've held your breath. What exactly are we doing that for? May be, to stop time, in a moment of fear, we unconsciously realise how completely our breath is related to our life! If we hold our breath, may be, we can stop life, and also stop something that we don't want to occur from unfolding.
The holding of breath when associated with fear can send us into flight or fight mode, where the body goes into a state of stress, causing all those problems that are so prevalent in our world today - high blood pressure, weakened immunity, the release of stress hormones, and, of course, short shallow breathing.
When a person naturally breathes, deeply and fully, their whole system is in a relaxed state and, therefore, much more able to deal with stress. This also helps reduce the full-blown effect of the flight or fight response. If you know anyone who is a very relaxed person, or you are yourself, you will know that they find it natural and easy to breathe with slower, deeper breaths.
In this day and age when things are moving so fast, it can help to be reminded that there are very simple things in life that can come to our rescue and help us keep a balanced perspective and healthy life, even when chaos ensues around us. The world is changing at such a rapid pace, it is easy to get caught up in the speed of it all. So, how can we slow down? Quite simple. Stop and take a deep breath! Hasn't anyone ever said to you, "Calm down, and take a deep breath." It usually helps, right?
There are some fundamental practices we can keep with us in order to maintain a state of balance. What if there were ways you could use your breath to have more control over your life, even if some stresses can be beneficial as they spur us on to do things? But, since stress is becoming accumulative, it results in leaving more and more people susceptible to illness and loss in the quality of their life.
Return to stillness
Breath awareness can be a wonderful tool to take us to the stillness that is waiting to unfold in our lives.
Try it right now: sit up with your spine straight, take a smooth deep breath and observe yourself as you do so. Follow the breath as it comes in through your nose, and travels down through your body into your abdomen.
Can you feel as it travels through your body? Take time to close your eyes and try to focus on following the breath - as the breathing in the abdomen expands and rises, and breathing out relaxes you again, you're not doing anything to change the breath. Just be present with it. Take a few breaths this way. There is no need to force, or strain; this is a very relaxed exercise. Sometimes, when we take our attention to something, it can momentarily cause us to tense up; so, just be aware of the possibility and allow your jaw to unclench and your shoulders to relax.
Now just reflect on this experience a moment. Did you notice that as all your attention went on the breath and there was no time for thoughts, you were, therefore, able to access the silent space between your thoughts - the gap? This is the silent space where pure consciousness resides, and as we start to go there more often, it can start to expand and come back into our everyday life.
When we combine our attention and breath, there is no room for the mind and its thoughts. If we can just learn to incorporate the simple practice of breath awareness into our day, we can start to unfold the magic of presence in our life. As you go about your day, try to remember to do this practice, just bringing your attention to the breath, and start making a difference in your life.
There is also something more you can do. Think of yoga. In yoga, there are various breathing exercises that can be learnt. These can be very powerful in balancing and healing the body. Primarily, the yogi learns breathing exercises so that s/he can bring more prana [energy] into the body, energising, cleansing and purifying the body - mentally, physically and energetically.
Most of these exercises are best learnt in the presence of an instructor. However, there are a few exercises that you can practice at home safely. They can radically aid you in improving your wellbeing.
More than a Lungful of Air
Let's talk about yogic breathing - the complete breath. Find a space to lie down on your back, preferably a quiet space. Bring your attention to the breath.
Relax your body. Release the jaw, and the shoulders. Let the palms of the hands face upwards, arms relaxed to your sides, the legs about hip-width apart. If you have a lower back problem, you can step the feet in and gently bring the knees together. Place one hand on your abdomen. This will aid you in following the breath. Breathe in through the nose, keeping the mouth closed. Inhale into the belly feeling the belly inflate like a balloon, and as you exhale release it back down again. Take a few breaths in this way.
Now, we're going to do the "three-parts" breath. First inhale into the belly, then bring the breath up into the ribcage [expanding the ribs] and finally up into the chest. Expand your chest. Use your hands to help you follow the breath. Keeping one hand on the belly, bring the other to rest on your upper chest. Use a nice, long smooth breath. Hold it there for a moment and then release the breath — first from the chest, then the ribcage, and, finally, exhale all the air out from the belly. We want the breath to flow through the body, so do not exert force. Be conscious of allowing the breath to be smooth and gentle. Try this a few times on your own and maintain a fine slow pace. When we breathe through the nose into our belly, the effect is calming to the system.
The full yogic breath is a wonderful way to bring more air into our system, and if we exhale fully, it aids in releasing all the toxins from our body. Always make the exhalation longer than the inhalation. This gives us the benefit of really cleaning out the stale air in our lungs.
Also, there's a medical perspective to all this - as we exhale, the brain sends a signal down the vagus nerve to relax the cardiac muscle. With each inhalation, the signal gets weaker and your heart revs up a little. Inhalation beats faster. Exhalation beats slower. It's a rhythm that sustains our hearts, and is deeply rewarding - physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
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