In today’s culture, we’re often defined by what we do and how productive we are. Daily chronic stress has become a part of our human experience–and so much of this is because we glorify busyness. How often do we run through our days in our heads before settling into bed at night and assign labels based on what we’ve been able to accomplish–like “today was a good day, I was productive and I plowed through much of my to-do list,” or “today was a bad day, I didn’t get much done?” At some point or another we started assigning worth to our days and to our selves by what we’ve been able to produce. Somewhere along the way we’ve decided to think of ourselves as human “doings” rather than human “beings.”
Cultivating a greater sense of awareness of the present moment is the first step towards achieving greater relaxation and contentment and the breath can serve as one of our most powerful tools in doing so. The utility of the breath in promoting peace exists for number of reasons.
First and most simplistically, by drawing our attention to the breath, we give the mind a neutral object to focus upon, thereby redirecting stressful, negative or anxious thoughts (of course, this object can be anything, but the beautiful thing about the breath is that you always have it with you).
Secondly, the breath links the conscious and the unconscious. By default, the breath is under involuntary control (meaning that we breathe even when we’re not thinking about it), but it can be modulated by attention and emotion. It is unique to virtually every other process in the body in this way. Think about it–you cannot think about your heart and change the way it beats or think about your blood vessels and cause them to dilate or constrict or think about an organ and alter its secretions, but you can think about the breathe and slow it down or speed it up. And by breathing deeply our lungs are able to take in more oxygen and release more carbon dioxide with each breath. Our respiratory rate and heart rate then slow down because our body doesn’t have to work as hard to meet its oxygen demands. Our energy expenditure becomes more efficient, allowing all the systems of the body–the digestive, lymphatic, immune, etc.–to work more effectively.
Lastly, the breath is an anchor to the present moment. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “as long as you’re breathing, there’s more right with you than there is wrong.” The breath is a subtle but powerful reminder that we’re alive.
So where does the practice of pranayama come in? With a two-to-one breath practice, meaning that we breathe in such a way that the exhale is twice the length of the inhale. I’ll elaborate. As we all know, there are two parts to the breathing cycle. The inhale is the stimulatory, energizing, nourishing, and activating component which brings oxygen and energy into the body, whereas the exhale is relaxing, grounding, cleansing and deactivating and functions to remove carbon dioxide and toxins to create space for the next cycle.
Think about it, when we get stressed out, what happens to the breath? It becomes rapid, irregular and shallow–we hyperventilate. Our breathing tends to be inhale-predominant, though its the exhale that stimulates the relaxation response via the vagus nerve. So, to counteract stress and anxiety, we need to find balance by lengthening the exhale–this is the premise two-to-one breathing operates upon. An example of this type of breathing is the 4-7-8 breath championed by Integrative Medicine physician, Dr. Andrew Weil, out of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Essentially this breath involves inhaling to a count of four, holding for a count of seven and exhaling for a count of eight–though you can use number so long as the 2:1 ratio is maintained.
Putting it into practice:
Find a comfortable seated position with your spine straight but not stiff and your hands resting comfortably by your sides or on your thighs. Close your eyes gently if it feels natural to do so.
Start the practice by just noticing what the body feels like–the sensation of the contact points of your body on the earth. Notice any areas of tension in the body–often we harbor tension in the neck and shoulders, so pay special attention to these.
Start to take a few slow deep breaths, breathing into any areas of tension and as you exhale the breath out, allow those areas to relax, more and more deeply with each exhale. Now, allow your breath to assume whatever pace feels natural, without controlling it in any way. Notice if it is fast or slow, shallow or deep, regular or erratic. Without judging it or changing it, just notice it for what it is.
Continue this for a few moments and then start to introduce the 2:1 breathing. Inhale through the nose for four-three-two-one, hold for seven-six-five-four-three-two-one, and exhale through the nose for eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one. If this count doesn’t work for you, adapt it so that it becomes easeful, but maintaining the ratio of 2:1. Continue for five breaths or however long is needed and then allow the breath to reassume it’s natural pace. Take inventory, notice how you feel and notice if it’s any different than when you sat down to begin this exercise. If you find it beneficial, make it a part of your daily routine to set down “busy” for a few moments with the breath.
Side note: If you think this is all total bullshit and don’t buy into the whole focusing-on-the-breath-thing, read this.