Today we often hear the terms Yoga, Pranayama, and Breath-work. What do these mean ? What relevance may they have for life today ?
The most important thing to realise is that breathing is vital for life. Until recently breathing was something that many of us did unconsciously while we lived life. Now as COVID 19 rips through the world attention is drawn to our breath. Can we use it as a wake up call to learn more about ourselves and consciously create a path to be happier?
There was once a time when people honoured a life force "Prana" which made up the entire cosmos. It had a sense of being inclusive of everything, and emphasised that everything was interconnected. People related to this as a form of energy; it was everywhere. Learning to control and honour the life force was known as "Ayama". At a time when life was closer to the rhythms of nature the people practiced "Pranayama" honouring the life force which sustained them. There are many names for "Pranayama" as ancient traditions across different cultures that practised variations of "Pranayama." In Southern Asia people (yogis) embraced a way of life called Yoga. The meaning of the word Yoga means union. Union with the life force to support and life to sustain ones own life. Today many people across the globe practice Yoga.
Taking these concepts many more recent teachings have evolved. These are more popularly known as breath-work. There are many people who have created styles. Some have created schools and communities of breathers. Often teachers have studied, and/or certified in other methods of breath-work and holistic traditions too, hence there is an interconnection between the entire community who bring the ancient wisdom into modern times. Every teachers journey has many steps. They evolve and grow. Breath work is a life school.
For an individual who is looking to improve their life by understanding the power of our breath, my advice is to look for a teacher who resonates. To practice breath-work safely, be wise in your choice, discernment, and be very aware of your body. Consult your doctor re. safety. Everyone is unique. Find what works for you.
Here are some basics to help you get started...
Breathe well at rest
The stress of modern life has many of us breathing in a relatively shallow way. We breathe predominantly with movement of the chest and shoulders. When stressed our breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. When relaxed we breathe more deeply, using the diaphragm, and our belly moves out. One might affectionately say we breathe "nose to belly."
As much as the breath responds to our state of being, we can use the breath to change our state of being. By breathing "nose to belly"and slowing down our breath we can relax the body.
If we feel sleepy and more lethargic, a few fast deep inhales and exhales can create a sense of feeling more alert.
To become aware of how your own breathing is, look at the diagram on the right. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your belly. Notice which hand moves more when you breathe. Gently breathe more consciously "nose to belly" style and have the hand over your belly move more.
Our aspiration should be to breathe "nose to belly" style at rest.
Breathe for coherence
Coherence is an important i.e. our body is in sync. We are in the flow and all the millions of functions our bodies perform; both conscious and unconscious can be at their best. It is different to relaxation. We often hear of athletes and peak performers who describe being at one with the moment. What if this could be made more possible through the practice of some simple exercises. By breathing in and out at a steady rhythm, equal length of inhales and exhales, while cultivating a positive feeling can increase coherence. I learnt the term coherence via my training at Heart Math.
Many athletes and peak performers have been using the breath for years to be at their best.
We can all try.
Breathe to be more alert
We all experience a slump of energy sometimes. The reasons for this can be many. e.g. lack of sleep, lack of good nutrition, stress etc. We can use our breath to bring about a sense of awakening the body in many ways...
Here are a few tricks
1. Take a few big deep inhales and exhales.
2. Do rapid breathing in and out through the nose for 15 seconds
3. Practice a type of pranayama called Ujayii breath (sounds a bit like Dath Vader in Star wars).
Breathe to relax
The best way to do this is to focus on "nose to belly" style breathing and start extending your exhale. Slow exhales through the mouth with pursed lips, humming or using a tone like AUM can relax the body.
Now you might say, Dr Oshi this is very nice but I will look a bit crazy if I start humming or chanting AUM in a meeting. So for those of you who need a more discrete option I teach a simple tool called a "Pen breath." Take a deep breath in. Place something like a pen on your lower lip and gently blow down the pen. Make sure you don't get ink all over yourself ! No one will know and doing a slow extended exhale a few times will help you feel less tense. More importantly it will help you think through how best to respond vs react in stressful situations.
This is a tiny introduction to some of the potentials of breath work. I hope I have inspired you to learn more.
Even though I was born in London I first learnt pranayama from my grandparents on the coconut plantations of Sri Lanka. My grand-ma called her breath "A timeless friend". Away from city life, on those idyllic trips in a bygone world, I learnt to listen to the wind, the rain, and the breath of life itself. I learnt to feel the ripple of the ocean, the nuances of water that trickled in streams beside the trails less taken, and honour sun rise. I learnt to breathe with life.
Then I grew up and the chaos of modern life occupied the seat of my childhood wisdom. I became busier and more successful. I retained elements of reflection in my life but I had lost my connection to the breath as a friend.
When COVID took the world by storm and I saw the world change. I saw my world change. And the awful reality - there is no going back. In my grief and loss I was searching for solace. After some dark moments I ran into someone very special - Niraj Naik founder of SOMA breath. Niraj welcomed me into his family and beautiful creative artistic community. On one hand, it was very different to my world of academic medicine. On the other hand Niraj a former pharmacist had a passion for science and physiology that matched my mentors in medicine. He just looked at things from a completely different perspective and challenged me to recognise, I had forgotten, some aspects of my life - in particular my life as an artist and the wisdom of my childhood.
I studied with him and some of his master instructors. They helped me during some of the toughest times humanity faced. During this time I realised there were many teachers who were bringing this ancient art form to humanity. True to my physician scientist mindset - I explored them e.g. Wim Hof, Buteyko, Breatheology (Stig Severinsen), Holographic (Martin Jones), Infinite Breath (Greg Mannion), Sadhguru and Dan Brules breath work to mention a few. I also practised breath work during dance classes. I wanted to optimise my respiratory system to live in a world with COVID. I felt breath work had something important to offer modern medicine and I was hungry to learn. Eventually my exploration lead me to pull away from all the styles out there and take a deep dive into my own experience as a child and adult. I started to trust myself, my body, and its innate wisdom to be well. I practiced breath work guided by silence and my own intuition drawing on everything I had learnt. I then started to fuse my own style with techniques I learnt during my periods of study. No day was the same. Every day I felt more alive; like one more piece of myself reconnected and I was becoming whole again. Even the pandemic and the lessons it was teaching us started to make sense.
These days I affectionately call my own practice, Breathing with Papatuanuku (Our Earth Mother) - it helps me pull away from the world of technology, noise, and find inner peace. I fuse my own style with other styles I learnt and it is a very enriching experience. My practice is creative and joyful. I particularly like combining music and artwork. My breath work focuses on an intuitive awareness of the environment and the breath which is gradually guided to a quiet place of silence, peace, and renewal. There is also an element of playfulness with my breath work.
It is important to practise safely. One should always consult their own doctor for medical advice and look at the safety of any given breath work style they choose to practice.
My practice of breath work helped me re-discover my old best friend the breath.
A traditional greeting performed by two people pressing their foreheads and noses together sharing Ha; the breath of life.
Through the exchange of this greeting, manuhiri, visitors, blend with tangata whenua, the people of the land.
The above poem is dedicated to the beautiful souls I met during my breath-work journey.
I love you and thank you for being a blessing in my life.