Plain and simply, breath is life. We begin our life with an inhale and end it with a final exhale. Thus, instead of measuring a life by days or years, it’s conceivable to think of a lifespan as a compilation of breaths – accumulating faster or slower depending on what we’re doing or going through. High stress = faster breathing. Low stress = slower breathing. The important thing to question, however, is which comes first? Though, I have a feeling it’s a kind of chicken-or-egg dilemma, I do think the two sides of the equation feed on each other in a circular manner, constantly building upon and perpetuating the other.
Think of it this way. You’re nervous. You’ve got a big job interview in a few hours, and you’re not prepared – or at least, you don’t feel prepared. And this isn’t just a job interview; this is the job interview, the one that you’ve been waiting and hoping for since you realized that your college graduation was happening sooner rather than later. And, now it’s here. What’s the first thing that happens? Your body alerts you to the fact that you’re nervous before you can really wrap your mind around why. Your heart starts beating a little faster, not only can you feel your pulse – but you can hear it, your hands may start to get a little clammy, and you start sweating. A lot. But, most importantly – you lose touch with your breath, which becomes shorter and shallower, only enhancing the panicky feeling growing in your chest. Ah, the wonder of nerves.
Now, another situation. It’s that moment right before you drift off to sleep, that short stretch of time when your mind’s endless loop has finally slowed down enough to ease away from consciousness, but you haven’t quite reached dreamland just yet. You’re still mindful of a few subtleties, remnants of your active mind as it drifts into slumber. You’re aware of the soft warmth you feel wrapped inside your blankets, the comfortable darkness on the other side of your closed eyelids, and most notably – the easy and steady pattern of your breath. Most times, when you try to bring attention to your breath, it halts in a sort of stage-frightened and frustrating way. You know that it goes on at it’s own pace, regardless of your active instruction, for your entire life. Yet, when you attempt to give it your wakeful attention, it pauses, waiting for you to give the official command to inhale or exhale. But, in this half-sleep state, your breath carries on regardless of your inward gaze. It’s deep, slow, and relaxed, often the last thing you remember as you drift off completely.
In each of these situations, the tempo and depth of breath enhances each state of stress or calm. In the first, the short shallow breathing exacerbates an already nervous body, and in the second, the deep and steady breathing guides the drowsy body to sleep like a lullaby. Which begs the question, if we can control our breathing, what else can we control? We already know that stress is a huge contributor to western disease, and since we also know that concentrating on keeping one’s breath slow and steady decreases stress, this all kind of feels like a no-brainer. In the animal kingdom, there is a negative correlation between the average speed of a species’ breath cycle and the average lifespan. Basically, slower breathers live longer lives.
If you’ve ever attended a really good yoga class, chances are you’ve heard the word, “Pranayama,” which basically translates into breath exercise from Sanskrit. (In reality: it breaks down into two words. “Prana,” which means “breath” or more commonly, “life force.” And “Yama,” which means “mastery” or “restraint.”) My favorite Pranayama is Ujayi Pranayama, because the sound that my breathing creates makes it much easier for me to maintain my focus. Plus, I find it to be incredibly soothing. The sound reminds me of the ocean.
Ultimately, breathing better is the first step to living better. I promise, you’ll be amazed at what you can change by simply bringing your awareness back to your breath when things get hard. Whether you’re struggling in Setu Bandhasana (bridge pose) or nervous for a big presentation, just remember to breathe into it. Send your breath to your places of tension or frustration, and watch them melt away. If nothing else, trust your breath; it’s been there from the beginning and it will be there until the end. I think it deserves at least that.