Your breath can provide a wealth of information about your well-being. Shallow breathing can be a sign of muscle tension, disturbed feelings or overtaxed systems. Irregular breathing can be a signal of metabolic dysfunction or physical exertion. Your breath is also an amazing biofeedback system that not only allows you to monitor your well-being, but allows you to adjust the conditions in your body simply through awareness. By cultivating awareness of the breath, you can learn to pay attention and adjust the phases, regions and qualities of your breath for optimal functioning.
The difference between forcing yourself to breathe in a certain way and intending it can appear semantic at first, but is very real. Forcing the breath is detrimental and should be avoided, but change can be created by careful attention and intention. It’s the same difference as forcing your way through a door and simply having the attention to leave the room and the door opening is one of the steps you carry out in the commission of that act. Both ways get you through the door but force damages the door and your entire mission on the other side of it, leaving you depleted. Opening the door uses the parts of the door in the way they’re intended to be used and eases you into your intended activity.
You can use your breath to wake you up, slow you down or focus your attention. You can use your breath to release tension quite effectively.
Skull Shining Breath, or Kapalbhati, is a way of breathing that will enliven your senses, detoxify your system and wake up your brain. Skull Shining Breath is defined as rapid, energetic exhalation, and the key is to initiate the exhalation from deep in the torso by drawing the low belly back to your spine in one quick motion. The inhale happens passively and you don’t have to engage any muscle to make it happen and is mostly silent. You can practice Skull Shining Breath slowly, about one every three seconds, or rapidly at the rate of one per second. Performed correctly, the exhalation is longer than then inhalation, preventing pathologic hyperventilation. However, if you feel light headed you should stop, and it’s always a good idea to consult a qualified teacher. Also, do not perform if you are pregnant, currently menstruating (it can induce or worsen cramps) or have untreated high blood pressure. At most, you might work up to three sets of 100 breaths with pauses for breath observation between sets.
Bumble Bee Breath is a soothing breath you might use before bed or meditating. The basic technique is to hum as you exhale, creating a pleasant bee-like sound in your skull. This reverberation is intensified by closing your ear flaps over your ear canal very gently with your thumbs while the first two fingers lightly lay on your closed eyelids, with your ring finger beside nostrils and little finger below your cheekbones. Start with five breaths, you might work up to twenty.
Lion Breath is excellent for releasing excess tension, energy or emotion and is great fun to practice with children. Inhale deeply and completely, and on the exhale open your mouth as wide as you can and extend your tongue as far down your chin as you can while looking up to the middle of your forehead. Start with three, work up to as many as you can do before you dissolve in laughter. Lion Breath is a great one to practice at stop lights (while the car is not moving) if traffic is getting to you, or while waiting in a slow moving line; people nearby may think you’ve lost it, but you’ll release tension, start conversations and may get to share your wisdom.
Finally, Ujayii Breath is an excellent method for inducing focus and deeply breathing. Ujayii is produced by slightly toning the back of the throat to direct the breath over the soft palette and offer a slight resistance to the muscles of respiration, resulting in a smooth, long, even, internally audible breath. Ujayii is often used during yoga practice, and can also be used while writing, working, driving or any time you need a little boost of focus and concentration. Begin by saying “Haaaaaa” as you exhale, as if you were fogging a mirror, then close your mouth around that sound. The feeling at the back of your throat will be similar to the feeling when you whisper. Now simply breathe with this feeling, as if you’re smiling with the back of your mouth.
Using your breath to adjust your energy and mental state is a time tested technique of applying your attention to your experience to both observe and adjust for optimum happiness and function.