The holiday season often brings with it a range of emotions: joy, gratitude, nostalgia, sadness, irritability, and frustration. Simultaneously we are expected to be social and festive, while focusing on tying up loose ends for the close of the year. With so many pressures and expectations, it is easy to feel lost, unmotivated, or anxious at such a seemingly cheerful time of year.
The ancient yogis had insight into how to bring ourselves out of intense emotional states and back to balance. The answer lies in a simple tool that is always available to us: the breath.
It seems like a no-brainer: take a full complete breath when you are feeling out of sorts and you can re-center. The fact of the matter is that many of us forget to breathe when we need it most, or are even unsure of how to take a full, complete breath. When we inhale, the brain sends a signal to the diaphragm (a dome-shaped muscle that attaches to the lower ribs) to contract and move downward, while an outer set of intercostal muscles (located in between the ribs) contracts, causing the ribs to expand out and up. This makes space for the lungs to inflate, bringing oxygen into the body. The muscles in the chest and in the neck assist in lifting the upper ribcage to create more space for the breath in the upper torso. On the exhalation, the entire process reverses: the inner set of intercostal muscles contracts, the diaphragm moves back up, and the lungs deflate, releasing carbon dioxide. The breath also carries prana, or life force energy. When we inhale, we bring in prana that animates and enlivens us.
Here’s how you can experience the calm of a full, complete breath wherever you are:
Pause what you are doing and take a moment to find stillness in your body, either seated, standing, or laying on your back.
Close your eyes or focus on a point in front of you so your senses begin to draw inward.
Allow the movement of your inhalation to start in your belly, expand into your side ribs, your back body, and then up into your chest.
Find a gentle pause, or retention, at the top of the breath.
Exhale and feel your belly draw back in toward the spine, the side ribs release down, the back body return toward center, and the chest lower. You can exhale through your nostrils or through your mouth to help release tension.
Open your eyes, and view your surroundings with a new, clearer perspective.
The breath is very clearly connected to the mind: how we breathe affects how we feel. Here are some common breathing patterns and the emotional traits that often accompany them:
Long inhale, short exhale: difficulty releasing and letting go
Short inhale, long exhale: trouble finding inspiration and motivation
Short, sharp breath: nervousness and anxiety
Overly-effortful breath: tension
Full, complete breath: equilibrium and ease
When we balance the breath, we balance the mind. When we change our breath, we change our lives. To experience full, complete breathing, we don’t need to buy fancy yoga equipment or enlist the help of a guru. Nature has given us a powerful tool that we can access at any time and tap back into the source of who we really are.
If you find that the holidays have thrown you off-center, pause and feel your breath. The pause between two breaths is like the pause between two thoughts. It is where pure consciousness resides.
To read more of Sarah Finger’s work, check out the Ishta Yoga blog here.