One of the foundations of Yoga is deep breathing. I talked fairly extensively about the benefits of Yoga breathing and methods for improving breath control in my book, Kundalini Rising. I'd like to devote some of my posts via Peace in the Body to examining breath work as well.
Let's start with the most basic controlled breath: an equal length in-breath followed by equal length out-breath. The concept is quite simple, but people often struggle with it when they first begin. I think the reason something so simple feels so hard is that we are not taught to breathe. It's instinct; it's necessary; it's life. We assume that we all do it well because we must. Unfortunately, this simply isn't true. We can get enough air to keep ourselves alive, but few people use their lung capacity well without training. If you do not already do breath work as part of your daily health regimen, consider what a great untapped resource of rejuvenation and power you have right in your own chest. This is something anyone can do, and anyone can improve. Do you suffer from dizziness, anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, asthma, stress, fits of rage, depression, confusion, headaches or migraines, tension, poor memory, or chronic fatigue? All of these things can be improved by conscious, active deep breathing and breath control. Do you want to improve your athletic stamina? You need breath control for that, too. Breath work not only strengthens your lungs, but your cardiovascular system as well. Breath work also is a necessary foundation for meditation and integral to any relaxation technique.
This first exercise, the one I'm focusing on in this post, is The Equal Length Breath. It is a great starting place for anyone who struggles with deep breathing or has had trouble with any of the above symptoms. The best times to use this technique are right before bed, first thing in the morning, when you are in the grip of one of the issues I've listed above, before meditation or at the beginning or end of any physical exertion. This exercise opens the lungs and increases the amount of oxygen circulating in your blood stream. Over time it improves your lung capacity and mental efficiency. It also gives your body the signal to continue using the opened lungs more fully after the exercise has ended, so the effect is longer lasting than just the time you spend doing the exercise. It triggers your sympathetic nervous system to slow down, shifting you out of a reactive state, into one that is more peaceful and aware.
To do The Equal Length Breath all you need to do is breathe in for a 5 count, and back out for a 5 count. Do not try to hold your breath at all. Let it flow in for 5 seconds and flow right back out for 5 seconds. Do that again 10 or 15 times and then let the breath flow without counting. Five is the lowest count you should ever do, and I expect most people whose lungs are not compromised can start higher. An 8 or 10 count is much more effective, but if you've never done any deep breathing or breath work or if you have lung disease, 5 is a good starting place. After you've tried this a few times, increase your count to 6. Then try 8. Once you're able to do 10 don't ever go back to 5 or 8. Always count very slowly. There is a tendency to want to count faster and faster, especially if you are a goal oriented person. The goal is not to finish the exercise! Pushing for the end will actually cause you to miss the purpose of doing this. The goal is to complete the best, slowest, most fully equivalent breaths that you can. If you think the counting you are doing has started to speed up, start over and count slower. Always maintain a perfectly even count. The basic 10 count is a great platform for breath work even if you haven't done it in a while. I always asks my classes to try their breath on a 10 count, and I don't feel like that is not too much to ask of Yoga practitioners. You can increase it from there as you feel ready. I generally count to around 30 or 40 myself, but have gotten up to 90 or 100 when I'm meditating. For the record, I was born with fairly severe asthma, and I struggled with it all through my childhood, teens, and into my early 20's. Growing up, I had the weakest lungs of anyone I knew. If I can learn to do this, so can you!
When you do this breathing exercise, I recommend breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. This will help you maintain control, focus, and flow of the breath. It should feel like your breath is a circle. Breathing in takes you half way around the circle. Breathing out completes it. One cycle of the breath is a full circle: all the way in and all the way out. I always like to suggest that as you breathe in, you focus on the feeling of joy, filling yourself with good health and happiness, and as you breathe out, feel any tension, pain, or anxiety flowing out and evaporating into thin air. Breathe in only what feels good. If anything in your mind or body doesn't feel joyful, breathe it out and just fill your thoughts with the counting of the breath. The numbers are neutral. Use them to clear the cluttered thoughts out of your mind.
I always tell my classes, "The breath is more important than the postures. When in doubt, just breathe." That is what I am telling you, too. Whatever you face today, pain or joy, whatever the obstacle, big or small, the first and best thing you can do is just breathe.