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Rukmini, Ali Shevlin continues with her guest blog series on balance. Thank you, Rukmini for this thoughtful and practical article. For more from Ali Shevlin, check out her website http://purepranaayurveda.com.
We live in a world of extremes and conflicts. Many of us are leading such busy lives that pausing, even for a moment, seems like a huge task that we cannot make time for. Others are caught in a tangle of inertia, where it is the idea of doing that feels daunting and like too much effort. The media that we sit still to watch or read for relaxation bombards us with images of non-stop activity, while work often consists of sitting at a desk while our brains are forced into overdrive simply to keep up with demand. No wonder so many of us are burnt out and confused! Sometimes, it seems as if balance simply cannot exist.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been sharing some of my thoughts and experiences on the idea of “balance” - what it is (or might be), what it is not, and more general, philosophical ways in which we can bring more balance into our lives. Over the next few months, I’m going to be sharing some more practical, everyday ways of finding balance; ways that I’ve found to be enormously helpful to incorporate into my daily routine, and that I can also call on in those times of emergency when it feels as if the world has gone mad!
When I first started practicing yoga - just three years ago - I was very much a “doing” person. My initial interest stemmed from the fact that yoga seemed like a nicer way of working out than running around the park in the rain or sweating it out at the gym. It has only been in recent months that I’ve realized how much more I’ve gained from the practice; it has not only helped to keep me physically healthy, but it has helped me to achieve mental and emotional balance and calm, even in times when I thought those things seemed impossible.
Yoga is not just the physical postures, or asanas, although I will be talking more about these in a couple of months’ time (and sharing a simple sequence or two for mind-body balance). Another aspect of the practice, and one that I’ve found to be the perfect “takeaway” tool for balance, is pranayama, or control of the breath.
Breath is our life force. Without the air that we breathe we would die very quickly, within a matter of moments, and yet we pay far more attention to our food (which we could survive without for an average of three weeks) and drink (more vital than food, but which we could still survive without for up to five days). If we can control the breath, we can control our life force and everything that stems from it, including our thoughts, emotions, reactions and physical wellbeing. It is literally like a free medicine bag that we already carry around with us. We simply have to learn how to best use it.
There are many different ways of practicing pranayama, all of which have different effects. Which one you choose will depend on how you are feeling, what your body and mind need at any given moment, and your level of practice. But no matter how proficient you are or how much time you have, the best and simplest place to start is always the same.
Taking a deep breath.
I would like to invite you to try an experiment. Wherever you are and whatever else you are doing at this moment in time, pause, just for a short while, and bring all your focus to your breathing. Are you breathing through your nose, or through your mouth? Wherever the air is entering your body, bring your awareness to that point. Notice the air moving past your skin as it enters your body, and follow it all the way down. Notice whether the breath you have just taken is shallow - how far does the air go down? Which parts of your body move as you breathe - your throat, your chest, your stomach, your back? Does your heart beat quicker as the air rushes in, desperate not to miss any of that fresh oxygen? Do you feel any effect in your mind as you breathe in?
Notice the pause at the top of your inhale, however short, before the exhale begins.
And now, bring your attention to to your breath as it leaves your body. Are you breathing out through your nose or your mouth? Is the exhale rushed, or slow and measured? How long does it take for the air to completely leave your body? If you place your fingers just underneath your nose (or mouth), how forceful does the air feel? Does it feel like it completely leaves, or are you already moving on to the next breath, the next thing, the next demand, before this breath has had a chance to end?
As you keep your awareness on your breath, feel it gradually slowing down. If you were breathing through your mouth, try shifting to breathing through your nose. As the air enters your body on the next inhale, consciously draw it a little further down, perhaps to your chest area instead of your throat, or through your chest and all the way down to your belly. Feel your belly rising, your chest move outwards, your whole body expand, and allow everything to relax. Breathing deeply shouldn’t be forced or strained, but a joyful celebration of new energy. As you exhale, allow the breath to move out slowly. There’s no rush, it doesn’t have anywhere else to be. And allow all the air to leave your body. Feel your whole body sinking back down, your belly coming all the way back to wards your spine, and relax into the slight pause before the next inhale naturally begins.
Breathe in this way for a couple of moments, and then re-ask yourself the questions above. How different do your breath, mind and body feel after just two minutes of conscious, deep breathing? Do you feel calmer? More grounded? More alert? More energetic?
Mostly, in everyday life, we forget all about our breath. Our bodies do an amazing jobs for us, but with all the other demands we place on them, breathing for survival has become the norm. This means shallow, fast, and literally just enough to keep us alive. We are not only missing out on so much of the vital energy that the breath carries, but we are perpetuating a vicious cycle. We are already breathing for survival, as if we were facing extreme danger, and this in turn has an effect on our physiological state. Breathing as if we were stressed actually does make us stressed. Our bodies react by slipping into “fight or flight” mode, which makes us breathe even quicker in preparation for either running or fighting. This in turn - obviously - makes us feel more stressed. And so it continues. Many of us, today, are running almost permanently in that adrenaline-filled survival mode, and yet we already have the most important tool to break out of it. Conscious breathing, deep and slow, can bring our bodies and minds back towards a state of balance and calm, where we can objectively evaluate the “danger” and our reactions to it. If there is a genuine need for fight or flight, we can then use the extra energy from the breath to face the danger strongly. If there isn’t, then we can use the moments of calm centering to give ourselves, and possibly others, some much-needed space.
You can do this anytime, anywhere. Probably no one else will even notice you physically doing it, and yet they will almost certainly see the effects.
The breath can also be manipulated in more sophisticated ways. As you get used to breathing consciously and deeply, and become more aware of your breath throughout the day, you might find that other techniques are useful when you have a bit more time, a bit more space, and a greater need for deep calm and balance. The following pranayama exercises are two that I have learnt during various retreats and trainings, and which I find I return to daily, usually after I wake up and before I go to bed, to help maintain balance throughout my day. They are relaxing and calming, but also provide a wholesome, natural energy that works with the rhythms of your body rather than against them - a balance that cannot be achieved with coffee and mindless TV!
The Nine Tibetan Cleansing Breaths
I'm sure there must be a different, more esoteric name for this - but this sums it up nicely! This exercise is often found in Tibetan and Chinese styles of yoga, which tend to be slower and deeper than those found in typical western studios, and it’s wonderful for clearing the mind, cleansing the nasal passages, and centering the breath.
Begin in a seated position, either cross-legged or kneeling. Keeping your back straight and your shoulders back but relaxed, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, as we practiced above.
Take a deep inhale, and on the exhale chant “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh” - kind of like at the dentist! (You don’t have to do it out loud). On the next inhale, raise both arms up above your head, stretching all the way up to the sky, and release them to your knees on the exhale.
On the next inhale, women will raise their left hand to their left nostril, palm facing outwards, and block off the left nostril with their middle finger. Men will do exactly the same on the right. The reason for the difference is one of energetics - the left side of the body is considered the more feminine, while the right is more masculine. On the exhale, blow out forcefully through the open nostril, imagining all your thoughts and unwanted emotions, physical ailments, stresses and strains etc disappearing with the blast of air, and then lower your arm.
Repeat this on the opposite side, and keep repeating until you have exhaled six times altogether, three times through each nostril.
For the final three breaths, both nostrils are kept clear and the exhale is blown out through both nostrils at once.
Sit quietly, with your eyes still closed, for as long as you like after this exercise, keeping your breathing deep and regular. You can also repeat the exercise as many times as you like.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is a wonderfully, calming, balancing exercise, and is probably more portable than the Tibetan breaths! It balances the right and the left sides of the brain, leading to an increased feeling of groundedness and calm.
Begin in a seated position, with your back straight, shoulders relaxed and eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths as we practiced above.
Using your right hand, bring your index and middle fingers down to touch your palm, leaving the thumb, ring and pinkie fingers outstretched. Bringing that right hand up to your nose, use your thumb to very gently block off the right nostril.
Take a deep inhale - for a count of about 4 - in through your left nostril.
When yo reach the top of your inhale, release your right nostril, and use your ring and pinkie fingers of the right hand to gently block off the left nostril. The exhale will then flow through the right. See if you can exhale slowly, for a count of about 8.
Leaving the fingers of your right hand exactly where they are, inhale - again for a count of 4 - through the right nostril, before releasing the left nostril, bringing your thumb to the right nostril again, and exhaling for a count of 8 through the left. This is one full round.
You can keep going with this for as long as you need or want, repeating the pattern of inhaling left - exhaling right - inhaling right - exhaling left. You can also vary the length of the breath, but try to make sure that each exhale is roughly double the length of the inhale. This makes the practice more relaxing and grounding, as each exhale seems to sink your body further towards the ground.
Enjoy these practices - I’d love to hear how you get on and if you feel they make a difference! If you need any help or further advice on how to practice pranayama, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Next month we’ll be looking at another “takeaway” tool that you can practice whenever you feel the need for greater calm and balance - meditation.
Loving Life and Living Love,
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