By focusing on your breath and breathing consciously at certain times and in certain situations, you can turn ordinary moments into priceless opportunities to cultivate greater health and well-being, and more peace, power, and presence.
Wake Up If you get groggy, feel tired, but still have work to do, here’s a Sufi technique that will help. (By the way, the Sufis—Muslim mystics—have lots of great meditations and exercises, combining breath with thought, prayer, movement, and sound.)
Give yourself two to four short, quick powerful inhales through the nose, and then blow the breath out through pursed lips. Do that for two minutes, and see if you are not buzzing with energy and aliveness. Shoot these short quick breaths into your chest through the nose, and then release the breath out your mouth through pursed lips. We call this the “Sniff and Pooh Breath” because of the sound you make when inhaling through the nose and when blowing out through pursed lips.
Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Poooh! Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Poooh!
Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Poooh! Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Sniff . . . Poooh!
Don’t laugh! Or laugh if you want to, but try it. Do it now. And do it again.
Play with it. Experiment.
Getting Out of Bed Charge the body by deeply stretching into the inhale and stretching as you sigh the breath out. Do this three times. Charge the mind by inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for a count of five. Charge the heart by focusing the breath in the heart area, and imagine that on the inhale you are breathing in compassion for yourself, and on the exhale you are expressing gratitude for a brand-new day.
Tune in to your breath as you turn on the tap, and watch how the breath changes as you experience the warm water washing over you. Meet the feelings with the breath. Breathe and open and relax into the feelings, as you would the caressing touch of your beloved. End your shower by turning on the cold water. Meet the feelings with your breath. Practice breathing in and out quickly and smoothly. Deliberately relax your body and integrate the stimulating feelings of cold water. When you are done, breathe vigorously as you dry yourself off. Take a couple of long, lovely sighs of relief to end the ritual.
Stopping at a red light is a good opportunity to relax and do so some cleansing breaths, or use the time just to tune in to your body and your breathing. If you are stuck in traffic, loosen your grip on the wheel. Check your shoulders and your posture. Scan your body, bringing awareness and breath to any places where you find you are holding tension. Breathe as you wiggle and relax your jaw, your neck, and your shoulders. As soon as you notice any contractions anywhere in your body, return to the breath. Use your breathing to relax and release the tension. You can actually choose to enjoy being stuck in traffic! Turn on a toe-tapping, hand-clapping song, and then breathe in rhythm to the music. Consider how being stuck in traffic compares to what some people have to bear on a daily basis. Shift your focus. Deliberately generate gratitude and conjure up appreciation. Consciously enjoy the feeling of expansion on the inhale and deliberately enjoy the feeling of relaxation on the exhale. Strengthen that part of you that has the ability to generate comfort and pleasure at will. And remind yourself that life is good.
When you are on the treadmill at the gym, breathe in rhythm to your footsteps. Use the time to work your way through the body, breathing into every part or place you are conscious of. Be conscious of unnecessary tension or effort. Relax any muscles you don’t need to maintain your pace and form.
You can also practice breathing into your chakras, repeating an affirmation, mantra, or power statement as you turn your attention and move through each one. (A chakra is a point of subtle energy described in yoga texts. Our body has seven of them, and it is said that the energy in our chakras spins like a wheel. We will discuss them in more detail in the section on Binnie Dansby and Source Process, Letting Go of Life-Limiting Thoughts.)
Breathe gently into the epicenter of the pain, using your breath to move all your attention into the pain. Then exhale softly and deeply, relaxing the muscles or the area around the pain and tension. Look for details. Is there a shape to the pain? Does it have borders? Does it have a texture? Does it have a temperature? This isn’t about analysis, it’s about feeling. Use your breath to bring energy, relaxation, and awareness to the pain. Do this for a few minutes and watch how the sensations move and shift and change. And don’t be surprised if the headache passes.
Pain and Fatigue
Most people are very surprised at their ability to release pain and fatigue from their bodies after only a small amount of focus and practice. The same practice we used for a headache can be used for any pain. The key to breathing in this case is not to make the pain go away, but to find or create comfort in the presence of the pain. If you did or are doing something to cause the pain, then you can do something to stop the pain. But if the pain comes by itself, why not let it go by itself?
The practice is referred to as “butterfly breaths” or “cave breathing.” It involves very subtle—almost imperceptible—continuous breathing. You practice a connected breathing rhythm—a wheel of breath—to gently get energy flowing and find or create a space of comfort, even pleasure, in spite of the pain. This means you take tiny breaths, to relax into a very light and subtle breathing pattern, and then wait and watch for an opportunity to take a more expansive breath. It will come by itself at some point.
You will sense an expansive breath suddenly rise up from within. When it does, catch it, help it, cooperate with it. Ride it. You can also learn to “suck” pain and fatigue from your muscles with the inhale and to release it from the body with the exhale. You can use connected breathing for example when running to pump energy into the body—staying ahead of the demand—and you can pump fatigue out from your body with every exhale as you go, not letting it build up.
Use an expanded inhale to “grab” fatigue from the muscles, and invite a more deliberate exhale to “dump” that fatigue out of your body and into the earth as your feet hit the ground. Let gravity help you release the pain and fatigue as you drop your weight and transfer the energy through your feet and into the earth as you run. If you are involved in an activity that includes repetitive or rhythmic movements, you can coordinate those movements with the breath, finding your own sweet spot to prevent or manage pain or fatigue. Using awareness, you can zero in on a perfect breathing rhythm, rate, and volume to meet and manage your energy demands. If you are running, you might inhale for two steps and exhale for two; or you might inhale for two and exhale for four. Or you might inhale for four and exhale for two. And you may find yourself intuitively changing it or adjusting your pattern as you go.
Warming and Cooling
Have you noticed that you can use the same breath to warm up your hands as you do to cool off your soup? We know this, but demonstrate it to yourself right now just for fun. Put the palm of your hand a few inches in front of your mouth and blow with a hah sound, as if you want to steam up a mirror. Notice that the breath feels warm. Now purse your lips as if you are going to whistle and blow. Notice that the same breath feels cool.
You can use the breath to warm yourself up (some yogis have mastered this to such an extent that they can sit in winter and melt the snow around them) or cool yourself off, depending on your situation (or time of season). To warm yourself up: breathe through the nose and quickly pump the breath with your belly and diaphragm (similar to the kapalabhati or “Breath of Fire”). To cool yourself, turn your tongue up toward the roof of your mouth and inhale slowly, feeling the cool sensations under your tongue and in your throat. Consciously draw that breath all the way down to your perineum, and feel it cooling your chest and belly along the way. Remember, in every case, your consciousness and your intention are the prime creative factors that produce your desired results.
The detox breathing techniques we discussed earlier in this chapter will also help with hangovers. Remember to rest, because the less sleep you get, the worse your hangover is. Remember too that exercise releases endorphins, so it can help you get over a hangover. Oxygen increases the rate at which alcohol toxins are broken down, so fresh outdoor air will add a natural boost to your breathing practice. Last and most important, don’t forget to drink water. It’s a universal solution (pun intended). You can apply specific breathing techniques to address the various hangover signs and symptoms, such as headaches, sleepiness, nausea or queasiness. Breathwork can also address the guilt, shame, depression, or anxiety that may accompany a hangover. Active breathwork exercises work well because they get your blood pumping and your oxygen flowing. And they work especially well when you combine them with various yoga postures or any twisting or bending movements that force blood into the digestive tract.
Our lungs are the principal excretory organ for weight loss, and since oxygen plays the primary role in burning fat, breathwork is a no-brainer for weight loss. When a pound of fat is oxidized, about 20 percent of it turns into water and is eliminated, and the other 80 percent is excreted as CO2, so breathing is literally the main way we lose weight. The carbon in carbon dioxide is fairly heavy, relatively speaking. In fact, the average person breathes out close to a half pound of it every day without even trying. Whatever exercise you do, if you simply breathe more deeply, you can add to the fat-burning potential of the exercise. Exaggerating the “squeeze and breathe” exercise is good for weight loss, and “reverse respiration” as well as “hypopressive breathing” (learn more about this technique at the end of this section) can also be done as weight loss exercises. Those same exercises also help to deal with hunger pangs. The technique I like best is this: inhale, and as you do, suck in your belly and pull up on your perineum as well as everything in your abdomen, just like you do with reverse respiration and hypopressive breathing. Then as you exhale, suck in the belly even more and pull up even more on everything in the abdomen, as you did for detox breathing. Hold the breath and the tension for a long count (for example, ten seconds). This is not as complicated as it sounds. Just imagine what you would do if you wanted to pretend that you had a very flat belly and a very thin waist. You would suck everything in and up, right? Well, that’s it! Do that while you inhale, exhale, and hold.
This technique is recommended by Dr. Andrew Weil for insomnia: breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, exhale for a count of eight. Some people find that this exercise keeps them busy, thinking and doing. But it is worth a try, because many people say it works for them. Another technique for insomnia is to remember the Stig Severinsen mantra: “Relaxation is in the exhalation.” Use each exhale to imagine and feel yourself slowing down. Make each exhale like the last “chug” of a train coming to a stop. Feel your muscles relaxing, your body softening with each breath.
The technique I like to use is to inhale gently and release the exhale and “puddle out,” meaning totally relax the body as the breath pours out. I imagine myself dropping down . . . settling in . . . The breathing is slow and easy and the focus is on relaxing all the joints and muscles, surrendering to gravity, and creating the sensation of melting with each exhale. Make sure not to disturb the relaxation with the next inhale. Don’t use effort or force to breathe in; continue to relax as you inhale.