by Donna Quesada: Your breath is what connects you to the present moment…
It’s the key that opens the portal to expanded awareness. It’s the golden thread that connects you to spirit. It’s your tether to stillness, your anchor and your secret lifeline to sanity. We think very superficially about energy—thinking only in terms of externals, such as food and sleep. But, the breath is the most direct and powerful link to our energetic system and is thus the most immediate way of regulating our vital life force. This in turn, affects the quality of our emotions and our overall ability to direct our minds—the underlying point of Yoga.
Once, during the years leading up to my divorce, I remember confiding in my my most beloved teacher about how loathe I was to simply speak honestly to my then husband. I had feared speaking my truth. Before having me continue with my story, the first thing he did was breathe with me. He then spoke about the invisible power of what he called grit, and its relationship to the breath. It’s an inner strength, which contrary to what we’ve been taught in the west, has nothing to do with muscular strength. It comes from the depth of our breath, he said.
There is a direct correspondence between our endurance and the length of our breath. He also explained that our inner radiance and glow comes from our breath. I remember thinking about how amazing that statement was… being seduced into the idea as a girl, that beauty was something you could cultivate externally and enhance with cosmetics was now being turned upside down. Sure, there’s the clichéd version of it… “beauty comes from within,” but never were we taught as kids that the breath is the magical key to that mysterious glow.
It comes from the depth at which the breath affects the nervous system and the mind… sometimes my teacher would simply use the word “psyche.” The psyche becomes conscious the minute you take a conscious breath, he’d say. And the minute we become conscious, we become divine. And beautiful.
This divine awareness is awakened by conscious breathing, which in turn awakens the sacred life force that flows within, which is sometimes referred to as “life force” or “energy of life.”
This energy of life is called prana. And the deep breathing done in Yoga is collectively referred to as pranayama—breath expansion. As the sun illuminates the sky and gives life to earth, so the prana running through our bodies, transforms it from a lifeless mass into what we are. It expands us. Breath control is the most effective way to maintain our vitality by adjusting the many rhythms of this physical system—from the familiar circadian rhythms, to the lesser known ultradian rhythms, which monitor the smaller-scale energy cycles that occur throughout the day, which are often thrown out of balance because our nervous systems are overtaxed.
Conscious breathing pulls us out of the freeway of thoughts in our heads, which usually aren’t nourishing. It pulls us out of the world of sensory overload, which is just another form of intoxication. It is said, in Yoga, that the only thing the mind will follow, is the breath. By connecting us to the present moment, it connects us to the experience of our very lives. While presence isn’t everything, it’s where to start. It’s our connection. And without connection, there can never be fulfillment.
Spotlight on Alternate Nostril Breathing
How to do it:
This breathing exercise involves alternately blocking off each nostril in a certain ratio and pattern to evoke a state of inner balance. The ratio for the length of each part of the breath is a one count inhale, followed by a four count hold and a two count exhale. The eyes are closed.
- Sit in easy pose, or in a chair, with a straight spine.
- Hold the left hand in Gyan mudra.
- Block off the right nostril with the right index finger.
- Inhale through the left nostril for one count.
- Hold the breath for four counts.
- Exhale through the right nostril for two counts.
- This is one cycle of Alternate Nostril Breathing. Continue for at least five minutes.
- Reverse nostrils and continue the breathing sequence.
The left nostril is associated with with the cooling energy of the ida nadi, the nerve channel that terminates there and communicates with the right hemisphere of the brain. Breathing through the left nostril has a calming effect and is associated with lunar energy.
The right nostril is associated with the warming energy of the pingala nadi, the nerve channel that terminates there and communicates with the left hemisphere of the brain. Breathing through the right nostril has an energizing effect and is associated with solar energy.
Actively switching nostrils engages both hemispheres of the brain, which has a balancing effect on our energy flow, biorhythm and correspondingly, the glandular system, mood and overall state of health.
Contraindication: Most Yoga teachers will recommend that you don’t practice this pranayama if you are experiencing sinus headaches, nasal congestion or other sinus related issues. Instead, practice a more gentle pranayama such as Long Deep Breathing, or rest in savasana.