The breath is a reflection of our mental state and vice versa, yet often this connection goes unnoticed, even when it is ruling our behavior. If you have ever realized that you were holding your breath then taken a few full breaths, you may know the feeling of softening places you weren’t even aware were becoming tense. The connection between our breath, body, and mind is beautiful, fierce, fragile, and sometimes less under our control than we would like to believe.
Have you ever noticed that becoming aware of your breath almost instantly begins to change it? Attempting to simply observe the breath can be as challenging as practicing breathing exercises that intentionally alter it. Even with the clear and calm state of mind we attempt to cultivate in order to practice pranayama, these practices are challenging. Now imagine having no control over your breath. You can’t take a full breath in or out, you can’t slow the breath down, or you can’t stop coughing long enough to really breathe. While many of us are fortunate to not experience asthma, panic attacks, or hyperventilation, these phenomena illustrate how tenuous our connection to breath can be.
Even if you aren’t prone to these conditions, you have most likely experienced breath-related fear at some point, perhaps due to choking while swimming, eating or drinking. Even the most experienced practitioner of meditation and/or pranayama may find themselves panicking in these situations. Yet, as one yogini and mother of a child with asthma recently wrote, the more you panic about not being able to breathe, the harder it is to breathe. This cycle can be hard to stop once it begins; the best prevention is to become mindfully aware of the breath and to practice slowing the breath before a crisis arises.
Try out some different breathing exercises. See how they make you feel after. Do you feel calm or slightly more agitated? When you find one that leaves you feeling calm, memorize it. Practice it enough that when you need it, switching into it is easy and natural, not another source of stress.
Mindful, active breathing is not something we only practice in yoga class, and awareness of it shouldn’t be either. We share a world that sometimes seems to be continually moving faster and getting crazier. Donna Fahri, author of The Breathing Book notes, “the process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor we have for the way that we personally approach life, how we live our lives, and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings us.” Even if you are in perfect health and have enjoyed a long life of trouble free breathing, remember to breathe consciously from time to time. You never know when you may need it, or what unexpected tension you may release in the meantime!
How do you use the breath in your daily life or to help you in stressful situations?