One thing that I ALWAYS experience after my yoga practice, is a feeling of improved mental function. This happens regardless of how tired I may have been, how focused I was or how my poses felt while I was doing them. How does this translate into daily life? Well for me, my level of patience for the chaos that can occur with young children is noticeably improved, I can sometimes remember more than four things I had on a list and my overall feeling of well-being is just better. The most important one for me is that when I have had a lack of sleep, which is quite often, I usually feel rejuvenated. Aside from the benefits of having physical activity in my daily life, there is a reason to attribute to this superbly beneficial phenomenon. Let’s see why:)
In Ashtanga Yoga there is a threefold focus of attention called the Tristhana. The places of attention are posture, breathing system and looking place. The body, nervous system and the mind are affected by the use of the Tristhana in Ashtanga Yoga. This trifecta is inherent in the effects that yoga creates but I believe that it is the breath that carries the most weight. This is why I will focus my attention on this aspect for this writing. Yoga has often been called a “moving meditation” and if you think about, having a focus of any kind that creates mental relaxation is a meditation.
I guess a simple analysis of the science involved in breathing will help to shed light on how a seemingly simple body function can have such a comprehensive impact on our mental well-being.
The body has a natural response mechanism to deal with stress and reacts congruently to physical and psychological forms. Many of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response. Basically, when we are confronted with stress of any kind, our sympathetic nervous system is called into action. Increasing adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol levels spike for the period of time stress is encountered. This causes shortened and increased respiration, a reduction in digestive processes, diminished pain perception, among others. The body is literally ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat. Usually the parasympathetic or “rest and relax” part of the nervous system will rebalance the body after the event. With psychological stress increasing in the world, due to money woes, work and economic problems, family responsibilities, the list goes on…the sympathetic nervous system can be left “turned on” and a lingering stress response will ensue. Over the long term, this may become harmful to the body because it is continually on high alert.
Deep breathing has a calming effect on the nervous system. I have read many articles and books over the years and research shows that deep breathing lowers blood pressure, among others. More complete belly breathing allows for gas exchange to be more efficient and effective. The nervous system is able to relax and this sort of meditation on breath creates more balance in the body and mind. Anxiety and depression problems have also been shown to improve with the use of deep breathing and meditative techniques.
There are many Eastern practices and even entire monasteries devoted to breathing and meditative practices. There is no mistake that thousands of years of learning and studying breath is evidence that this simple and everyday function can be used to alter our bodies and minds in countless and astonishing ways.
There are simple and easy techniques that can be done in the comfort in your own home to help reduce stress and improve mental clarity. If you want to create some metal space for yourself you could try an easy breathing meditation like this:
-Sit comfortably on the ground or in a chair so that your back is straight or you could lay down with a pillow under your head and one under your knees (pictured above)
– it’s always nice to have an essential oil diffusing in the background that is known for improving meditative experiences, such as sacred frankincense
– Start to become aware of your breath, maybe resting a hand on your belly and one on your chest. Do you feel your belly rise and fall with each breath?
– Take a deep inhalation and feel your belly, ribcage and upper chest rise. Then exhale feeling your upper chest, ribcage and then belly release down. Do this for 5-10 breaths and work you way up to more over time.
– When you get more comfortable you can add in a visualization of watching the breath, moving with golden light, as it enters your nose and moves its way down into your belly and then oscillates back up and out.
Do this for just five minutes a day, if that is all the time you have. Doing any amount is doing something to change your physiology in a positive and health giving way:)
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh