The Breath of Life


by jai cross

Many of my favorite group practices have a common starting point. Whether in a yoga class, a group meditation, a shared energetic practice, or a Five Rhythms dance class, we usually begin by focusing on the breath. This practice encourages us to deepen our bodily awareness and to cultivate a sense of living presence, of being here now in a body.

As one of the four medical vital signs, respiratory rate is used to quickly assess a multitude of psychological and physiological conditions. Breath rates fluctuate greatly depending on activity levels, although well-trained athletes and grounded individuals display less variation than people who are out of touch with their bodies. Probably everyone is aware that breathing can change radically as emotional states shift. Rapid shallow breaths are associated with agitation and anger whereas deep slow breaths typically indicate calmness and self-possession.

Since our breath rate is easily observed and measured, it provides a handy means of monitoring level of emotional stimulation or mental turmoil. But to make use of the information, we must be familiar with the character of our normal resting breath. While sitting still and without making any special conscious effort, count how many times you breathe in 60 seconds. Repeat the test several times and take the average as indicative of your resting respiratory rate.

Average resting rates for adults is often given as 12-20 breaths/minute whereas regular practitioners of yoga and meditation typically have a rate of 6-8 breaths/minute. Training courses for cardiac patients effectively lower their breath rates, which increases oxygenation of the blood and improves performance on exercise tests. To become more conscious of your breath, sit quietly and simply notice the physical sensations – the inrush of fresh air and the expulsion of “stale” air.

Inhalation should occur through the nostrils whose fine hairs filter out dust and other particulates that might otherwise lodge in the trachea and lungs. A dense network of blood vessels in the nostrils warms the incoming air, whereas mouth-breathing subjects the lungs to blasts of cold air that can produce inflammation. Nostril breathing is estimated to increase oxygen intake by 10-20%, so you get considerably more bang for each breath that enters through the nose.

The yogic discipline of pranayama is perhaps the most developed system of breath control, and its many practices include controlled hyperventilation, alternate nostril breathing, changing the length of the three breath components (inhalation, pause, exhalation), 3-part breathing, and ujjayi breath.

Three-part or complete breathing is a technique of taking deeper breaths by engaging the entire respiratory system. Keeping the belly soft, feel that area swell on the inhale. Notice how the abdomen, chest and ribcage expand with the incoming air. Fill the upper lungs by bringing the inhalation all the way up to the collarbone. On the exhale, follow the gentle subsidence of the chest, abdomen, and belly. With repeated practice, complete breathing naturally calms and soothes the physical, emotional, and mental bodies.

Ujjayi (pronounced “oo-ji”) breathing constricts the back of the throat so that an audible sound of “ah” is heard while inhaling and exhaling, similar to Darth Vadar’s hissing breath. This simple practice quickly increases body awareness, strengthens the diaphragm, improves oxygenation, and boosts available energy.

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