Learn Diaphragmatic Breathing And Change Your Life
Breathing links us both to the mind and the body. And the more we pay attention to breathing by way of a gentle awareness, the more we can relax and find our mind concentrated. That’s where diaphragmatic breathing exercises come in.
Change my breath, and it changes my life? It may seem an overly dramatic claim, yet it is not. Without breath, where is life? There are many sayings in English about breath, we lost our breath, we catch it, we hold it, we take a deep breath–yet the breath of life–meaning something one depends on, is among the most profound. Breath is not something we tend to connect with consciously, yet is foundational in Ayurveda and to life itself.
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Ayurveda and Yoga are Sister Sciences
Ayurveda and Yoga are sister sciences – they go hand in hand. We often think of Ayurveda as a traditional natural system of medicine, and that is an important part–as we all benefit from a stable, balanced, healthy body and mind–yet it is one point in the vast system of Ayurveda. Ayurveda is a way to know–through your direct experience–the very nature of life. Breath and diaphragmatic breathing, and in particular, meditation, are vehicles for that exploration of our expansive interior.
How we breathe can change the flow of prana (energy or vital force) throughout our being, and when prana is balanced, we notice that change in our life. When we use diaphragmatic breathing, we experience increased vitality, good mental and physical health, clarity, peace, and feeling like ourselves again.
When we learn diaphragmatic breathing, we remain relaxed, focused, less stressed, and overwhelmed.
Pranayama and Diaphragmatic Breathing
Today, the word pranayama is familiar to many – yet its meaning may not be. The word “pran” is the prefix “pra” and the verb root “an”. Think of words such as animate and animation. The prefix “pra” means forth and perfectly. Prana is the animating force. Today, pranayama is widely taught as exercises of the physical breath and as preparation for meditation, but it is a vast exploration of depth and subtleties.
There are many pranayama breathing practices. Some practices are generally balancing, and others specifically affect different doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha), tissue layers, organs, and channels. It is important to know, with certainty, your current state (Vikruti) before beginning pranayama. Pranayama practices are powerful, and it is imperative to perform the practices that are correct for you currently, as well as to perform them correctly. (Incorrectly performed pranayama can create disturbances.) The first step, prior to pranayama, is to have diaphragmatic breathing well established – and this typically takes six months to a year of daily practice.
What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
All systems of meditation begin with the observation of the breath. No matter what culture–all begin with the process of observing the flow of the breath. What is so important about breath? This universal focus tells us breath has a connection to our nervous system. When we are aware of the flow of breath, we stimulate the part of the brain that helps us make choices—versus the flight-fight response. When you observe the breath and use diaphragmatic breathing, that relaxation system begins to operate under your control, at your will. Who doesn’t want that?
When we use diaphragmatic breathing, some interesting things begin to happen; it switches on the parasympathetic relaxation response–the rest, restore and relax part of the nervous system.
This relaxation system requires a choice (versus flight fight that kicks in ever so easily), and we exercise that choice each time we observe the flow of breath. How do we benefit from that? It switches on the relaxation response, which lowers blood pressure, slows the heartbeat, increases focus, and creates a sense of deep peace. Through breath awareness, we learn to remain relaxed, focused, and less stressed and overwhelmed. Diaphragmatic breathing also helps to reprogram our habits and the judging and shaming voices we may hear in our heads. Put simply, breath awareness brings the quiet to the mind that we seek.
One practice that is foundational for everyone, and is always beneficial, is diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the simplest yogic practices and one of the most powerful natural remedies. How so? Diaphragmatic breathing provides a vehicle for managing stress, negative emotions (remember, “take a deep breath”?), and physical pain, and it has a positive influence on sleep. As we practice diaphragmatic breathing, it creates a state of balance that leads to relaxation of the nervous system and a sense of safety and comfort internally. It is an Ayurvedic approach to taming anxiety and PTSD.
What influences our breath, and what can we do about it?
There are three influences on the breath. The first is automatic breathing, primarily the need for oxygen. This breathing occurs all the time, and we don’t often pay attention to it. The second is voluntary breathing, such as when we speak. Ever feel tired after a day of meetings or teaching? Our breath is constantly adjusting to speak or to sing. The third is the influence of emotions, pain, stress, anxiety, grief, and trauma we feel in our minds and our emotional hearts. These influences create a different breath. That breath may be held (even working on the computer may change our breath, check in and see for yourself.). It may be jagged and shallow and not diaphragmatic. When we first lay down to do the free guided practices, we will notice these influences, in fact, we may notice them before, which positively drives us to do the practice.
When we begin to practice diaphragmatic breathing, we will notice that we relax, and these influences begin to soften, to become less intense, slowed down, and therefore less overwhelming. Through diaphragmatic breathing, we create a sense of calm within that we can learn to carry with us throughout the day. Think of the practices as training, or more accurately, re-training the mind and nervous system. Breathing links us both to the mind and the body, and when that connection is made and there is an awareness, things change in a profound way for us.
Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing
- Provides a gentle massage to internal organs
- Supports healthy functioning of the entire body
- Creates a deep sense of relaxation and ease
- Produces a calm, focused mind
- Reduces stress
- Bolsters the immune system
- Facial expressions soften and open
- Voice tone becomes softer and sweeter
- Supports healthy blood pressure
- Encourages circulation
- Naturally removes toxins (ama)
- Rejuvenates body tissues
- Calms Vata in the nervous system
- Enkindles agni (digestive fire) and promotes healthy digestion
How To Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing:
- Lie on a firm flat surface with your head, neck, and spine aligned in Shavasana (corpse pose-see image below). You may cover yourself with a thin blanket or a shawl. If you need, place a thin cushion under your head and a bolster under your knees. Be comfortable.
- Place one hand on your abdomen just below the rib cage. You will see the abdomen rise and fall with each breath from the movement of the diaphragm. Contacting and relaxing, expanding. In this reclined posture, there is very little movement in the rib cage.
- Allow a gentle awareness to develop about the five qualities of diaphragmatic breathing. If the qualities are not present, there is nothing you need to do. Simply observe how the breath is now, and in time, with practice, these qualities will emerge naturally.
- So often on the path of yoga, it is not about doing, but about letting go, not doing.
- Enjoy. Be. Simply be.
5 Qualities of Diaphragmatic Breathing:
- Deep. Relax abdominal tension and let the breath flow deeply.
- Smooth. The breath flows without jerks.
- Even. About the same length of inhalation and exhalation.
- Without sound (no forceful exhalations or inhalations.)
- Without pause. At the end of an inhalation, the abdomen rises and relaxes, expanding. Exhale. End of the exhale and the abdomen falls. Relax and inhale. Your breath will begin to weave one breath into the next. Flowing without pause.
Now, as you begin to relax, something remarkable and subtle occurs. You will see that you are not the breather. Your body is in Savasana, diaphragmatic breathing is present, and you now sense your body breathing. The fact is that you are the witness of your relaxed, involuntary, diaphragmatic breathing. As you allow your body to breathe, the mental effort that was present is waning more and more. Let your breath be as it is. Allow the breath to flow in a way that is just right for you. If the five qualities of diaphragmatic breath are not perfectly present all the time, that’s perfectly ok. Any disruptions in breath will naturally resolve in time. Anxiety, grief, and sadness that influence breath is part of life, but they need not disrupt your breathing.
Your diaphragmatic breathing helps you to relax, restore and comfort when these influences are present in life. Diaphragmatic breathing calms your body, soothes your nervous system, and relaxes your mind.
How long does it take to learn diaphragmatic breathing and change my life?
It takes less than ten minutes for diaphragmatic breathing to create a deep sense of calm—that is to say, for you to change your inner experience. You can create and carry this calm with you throughout your day and in every circumstance. Your capacity to heal, to be calm, and to share your calm with others throughout your day, is present within you.
Be consistent and patient. Enjoy working with diaphragmatic breathing each day. It takes six to twelve months of daily practice to learn to breathe deeply, smoothly, and diaphragmatically. This phase of breathing is called Breath Training. After a good amount of diaphragmatic breath training, the next step is introducing pranayama breathing practices.
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