How Breathing Calms the Body & Mind
Words: Pamposh Dhar
Photos: Matthew Henry
There are many ways to purify ourselves. One extremely effective method is purification through our own breathing. It is especially beneficial because it purifies both the body and the mind. Conscious, mindful breathing is basic to both yoga and meditation. Most often, we choose to breathe slowly and deeply in both these practices. This kind of breathing brings a sense of calmness as well as a sense of self-awareness, of being present to oneself in the moment.
This is the most basic breathing for both yoga and meditation, but yoga has much more to offer by way of mastery of the breath. Traditionally, this ancient practice lays great stress on pranayama, the art of using the breath to detoxify oneself both physically and mentally. The breath can also be used, in different ways, either to relax or energize oneself, as needed, or simply to bring the mind and the body into perfect balance.
The word pranayama comes from the root “prana,” which is Sanskrit for the vital life force, the energy within each of us that keeps us alive and well. This energy comes to us first as a gift, when we are born, and thereafter we sustain it by breathing, eating and nourishing ourselves in other ways. Breath is the most important source of this nourishing prana – we can survive for hours or days without water or food, but if we stop breathing, that is the end of this life.
Breathing is not a skill we have to be taught; we are born with this ability. So pranayama is not the ability to breathe, but rather a mastery of breath, so that we can choose to breathe in various ways to bring different results. Such mastery is best learnt from a teacher as self-learning can lead to unintended, sometimes harmful effects, such as raising the blood pressure.
Pranayama, yoga asanas (postures) and meditation make a wonderful harmonious whole, but pranayama can also be practised on its own to detoxify the body, including the internal organs, and balance the mind. Many yoga teachers, especially those trained in the classic traditions of yoga, also teach pranayama.
We can expel toxic thoughts, emotions and energy blockages in the body through a breath that focus on strong exhalations; as we expel, we also create more space for fresh oxygen. We might perhaps follow this up with a method that brings focus to forceful in- and out-breaths, or simply with the basic deep, slow breathing.
We can practise a breathing technique that brings the left and right parts of the brain, and the corresponding sides of the body, into perfect balance, in the process balancing our masculine and feminine energies too. These are just a few different ways we can breathe to support our physical, emotional and mental well-being.
By this time, we are half-way to meditation. It only remains to add the seed mantras (one-syllable chants) corresponding to each energy centre, and we will indeed be meditating. Try a guided meditation using an internally chanted seed mantra or a longer mantra meditation specifically focused on bring you inner peace.
In all these wonderful ways to use the breath, let us not forget that basic slow breathing that forms the very foundation of both yoga and meditation. When I lead meditation sessions, I always start and end with this breathing. As we put our attention on our breath, and choose to make it slower and deeper than usual, we are already inviting calmness and a sense of inner stability into our bodies and minds. At the same time, the focus on the breath moving through our body, helps us to connect with our own physical being and takes us inwards into deeper levels of being.