You began to breathe just moments after being born, and someday your life will end with your very last breath. In between, your breath is always with you wherever you go. It is your most valuable possession and a trusted partner. But how often do you think about your breath? How well do you know your own breathing patterns?
One of the most amazing things about breathing is that it is the only vital function that is both voluntary and involuntary. We can’t pause our heartbeat, blood flow or digestive system with a spontaneous desire to do so. However, we can control the breath with a simple thought. This is one of the reasons ancient yogis paid so much attention to the breath, its patterns and the ways it is connected to both body and mind.
There are countless approaches to pranayama stemming from the many lineages of yogic tradition. Some focus on breath manipulation to help with insomnia, stimulate the glands or tone the abdominals. Others use pranayama as a purification technique for cleansing the sinuses, digestive organs or nadis (energy channels). Pranayama is also used to calm the mind and as an ‘anchor’ for mindfulness. While you don’t by any means have to choose just one, you will probably find that some work better for you than others. And simple awareness of the breath is a great place to begin.
Personally, I have found that the more simple the technique or approach, the more likely I am to use it, resulting in it being far more effective than those techniques I rarely use (or remember to use). I started using breath awareness just over 10 years ago while dealing with anxiety during my first pregnancy. At the time I had no idea that it was a pranayama technique, but I liked the way focusing on the breath calmed my mind and helped me to feel in control of my body and my thoughts. I soon found that there was much more to the breath than I first realized. I had no idea it had so many different qualities. As well as in and out, I discovered that the breath moves up and down, it can be smooth and silky or rough and raspy, long and deep or short and shallow. It can be flowing and graceful or jagged and awkward. The breath can involve struggle or it can be free.
Over the years I have used simple breath awareness to establish the deep connection between mind and body that sets the scene for asana practice, I have used it as a basic meditation, for relaxation, for stress reduction, pain management and as an easy and accessible way to place a pause in a busy day.
The more I practiced breath awareness, the more I began to notice how different events and experiences in my life had an effect on the rhythm and qualities of my breath. Every thought you have, every action you take and emotion you experience influences your breathing. With awareness of your own breath and the way your life interacts with it you can learn to voluntarily exert control to change unhealthy patterns of breathing, thinking and acting.
Of all the necessities in life, breathing is the most immediate. Without breathing we would not survive more than a few minutes. It is your most intimate companion on your journey through life. Are you breath aware?