...Just as a trainer of lions, tigers or elephants studies their habits and moods and treats them with kindness and compassion, and then puts them through their paces slowly and steadily, the practitioner of pranayama (breathing consciously) should study the capacity of their lungs and make the mind passive in order to tame the incoming and outgoing breath. If the animal trainer is careless, the animals will maim him. In the same way, a wrong practice of pranayama will sap the energy of the practitioner.
-The Hatha yoga pradipika of Svatmaratma
In the realm of learning how to breathe in a way that is optimally beneficial for the body, timing is everything, practice is crucial and mindfulness is key. Being aware of the rate and quality at which you inhale and exhale can enhance the effects of an action that-- at its most basic function, literally keeps you alive. Breathing in and out every single day is essential for the operation of our human bodies. One can liken breathing to turning on a machine with different settings and speeds, (i.e. a washing machine or an automobile). Bringing air into our lungs can be veiwed as the ON switch. What we do with the machine once it's up and running and how efficiently we move about the world is based on the degree to which we train our bodies to use the power of breath.
Below are some tips that have helped me along the way and will hopefully guide you as you begin a breathing practice that works for you.
Timing is Everything
Each breath has the potential to leave an impression on our bodies, like a rubber stamp that's been inked. When it's hastily done, the full design won't make it onto the paper. For most of us, breathing mindfully means slowing down the pace of our inhale and exhale. When we breathe in a huff-and-puff way, we are breathing below our capacity. A well-paced breath puts the body in its parasympathetic state, a mode of relaxation rather than fight or flight response.
The rumors are true: finding thebody's relaxed state takes work these days. Taking your time to inhale and exhale may feel awkward at first, which is the reason why the process is compared to studying the habits of a wild animal. The practice itself takes time and timing the breath is the practice.
One way to pace the breath is to count the seconds it takes to inhale and exhale:
Step one: Exhale completely. Pull the bellybutton in towards the spine with the abdominal muscles as you draw the last of that breath out of your body.
Step two: Begin your inhale, having an initial target time of taking three seconds to inhale completely..."one avocado, two avocado, three avocado." (I have named this the Sullivan Avocado Breathing Technique after a colleague at work reminded me that counting avocados between seconds was more regionally appropriate than alligators or the Mississippi. I agreed with him enthusiatically. If you're not into avocados, find another word three or four syllable word to pace out the seconds that takes you to your happy place).
As best you can, pay attention to the sensation of air filling your lungs and how this moves the rest of your body around. It's easy to forget that all of the muscles of the respiratory system are located in the region from the base of your jaw all the way to your pelvis.
Once you have reached the end of the last avocado second, try and suspend the breath for one second more before...
Step three: Begin your exhale, counting down three avocado breaths " three ah-vo-kah-do, two ah-vo-kah-do, one ah-vo-kah doh...), noticing once again how all of the respiratory muscles are affected in the body as you exhale. Eventually, try and hold the body in emptiness, waiting a second or two before your next inhale.
Repeat steps 1-3 over and over and over again, all day everyday.
If you notice a rise and fall in the front of your chest, middle of your belly, and lower abdomen as you breathe, you are on the right track.
Practice is Crucial
Less think, more do. Practice everyday, even if just for the length of your favorite song, a walk from one door to another, everytime you click, touch, or swipe a fingertip on your phone, as you brush your teeth or tie your shoes, etc. You must breathe if you want to stay alive. Every moment holds an opportunity to train your breathing muscles.
The key to picking up any skill is doing it consistently. Practice practice practice. All the literature on meditation, any art form or new skill requires the action of actually DOING something purely for the muscle memory. If breathing with awareness for three minutes a day is more than you've ever done before, then give yourself credit for following through. Do it again the next day. Put it on your calendar as if your life depends on breathing well. Because it does.
Mindfulness is Key
Here is the most consistent reminder I offer to my students: If there's anything about this moment that feels good, say in the mind "THIS FEELS GOOD" and follow immediately with a deep breath, so the body cultivates the habit of breathing in the things that it likes.
Bringing your thoughts to the same reality that your body is in, the present moment, is the simplest way to find your breath. Formally or informally, taking on any practice that you are enthusiastic about makes breathing much easier. Whenever you are doing something you enjoy, think about it, feel the feelings, and breathe. When you are challenged, think about it, feel the feelings, and breathe.
Life's happening whether you like it or not. Pretty please, just breathe.