Updated: Sep 7
This week we explore the breath awareness stage, which also sometimes includes body/floor awareness for grounding.
To Breathe Well is to Live Well
Breath awareness and breathwork for me are some of the most transformational aspects of both yoga and Yoga Nidra. Learning to breathe well helped me to survive the intense pressure and stress of being a 24/7 PA in the London music industry and has also helped me to overcome anxiety and panic attacks. Most days I would arrive at the office to multiple emergencies to be managed immediately on top of the already mountainous piles of urgent work, much more than I could ever humanly manage to get through but all of it my responsibility. The only way I managed to stay stress-free (or relatively so anyway) was to notice when I’d let my breath grow shallow and short and to take time out to breathe well (I was still very stressed but at least I could function and remain outwardly calm). I’d quite often be found in a toilet cubicle eyes closed breathing between tasks trying to find some equilibrium.
The breath is truly our life force and is absolutely crucial for our health and wellbeing. To breathe well is to live well. It is intricately linked to the digestive system, blood flow, heartbeat, emotions, thoughts and feelings and as such the depth and quality of breath affect every aspect of our being. How deeply and how well you breathe is a major factor for mood and overall health and well-being.
Yogic breath work or pranayama is a whole practice in and of itself and there’s much to explore and discuss that is beyond the remit of this post but many of the classic pranayama practices find their way into this stage of Yoga Nidra and also the settling stage of the practice.
Voluntary and Involuntary Breathing
We are one of the only non-marine mammals that have the capacity to voluntarily breathe, as opposed to an automatic involuntary breath. This ability can be both incredibly useful and also quite damaging. For example, there’s a relatively new phenomenon called ‘email-apnea’, which refers to the unconscious breath holding that many of us undertake when reading emails or using social media but it also means that we can harness the power of the breath for healing, wellbeing and even to access altered states of consciousness through practices such a holotropic breath work.
Tricking the Nervous System
The breath is an easy way to hijack the nervous system and trick the body into believing it is more relaxed than it might in fact be. For example, longer exhalations than inhalations usually occur in deep relaxation, so to breathe in this way consciously is to relay a message to the nervous system and brain that says you are relaxed and in doing so you may actually start to feel it. This way of breathing (Visma Vrtti Pranayama / varied ratio breathing) has been shown to slow the heart rate, reduce anxiety and invoke the relaxation response among many other benefits. Similar to this is Sama Vrtti Pranayama / same ratio breathing, this pranayama invites inhales to match exhales and simulates the kind of rhythmic, steady and even breath that occurs in deep sleep.
The Optimum Breath Rate
There is some research that says the optimum breath count per minute is between 5-7* but for most of us our everyday way of breathing is around 12-18 breaths per minute and for a few, it may be more like hyperventilating at around 15-20. Shallow, upper chest breathing is the norm for many and breathing in this way is the body’s way of increasing oxygen and activating the fight-flight-freeze response. Habitually taking a shallow breath can negatively impact the body in many ways including affecting heart rate variability (which is crucial for maintaining good health) and stimulating the release of the stress hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. Balancing inhales and exhales to around a count of 6 can bring the breaths per minute down to the optimum level but it’s important to always let effortlessness and ease prevail as if you’re labouring to lengthen the breath then the body will be stressed and the effects negated.
The Breath and Feel Good Hormones
Simply having awareness of the breath when the body is deeply relaxed in these late stages of Yoga Nidra can help to stimulate or deepen the experience of diaphragmatic (deep belly) breathing without needing to do anything at all. The feeling that can sometimes arise here is one of the breath becoming so effortless that it is as though the breath is breathing you without your input. Diaphragmatic breathing that uses all of the body’s breathing muscles and not just those in the chest helps to move the body from the fight-flight-freeze response (sympathetic nervous system) to the rest-digest-repair response (parasympathetic nervous system) and helps the body to release the mood-boosting hormones, serotonin and oxytocin.
The breath awareness, or breath sensing, stage incorporates Mindful Breathing into our Yoga Nidra practice. There are many different techniques for mindfully attending to the breath such as noticing the breath at the nostrils or observing the rising and the falling of the belly and many of these will be weaved throughout a Yoga Nidra. Sometimes the invitation will be to simply notice the breath as it is without needing to change anything at all whilst at other times there might be specific instructions relating to the breath such as to direct the breath down into the belly to enhance diaphragmatic breathing, to count the breath or to sense the breath as flows of energy and sensation moving through the body. Whatever the approach the intention is generally to relax the body, move the mind away from thinking and towards feeling, to deepen understanding of the breath and the typical breath patterns that manifest for you and to support emotional explorations. Referring to this last objective, holding the breath can be a coping strategy for not feeling emotions and to breathe deeply is often to feel fully.
Wim Hof Breath
I feel there is so much more that could be shared on this subject but I’ll close by sharing the one breath technique which has helped me almost more than any other and that is the Wim Hof method of breathing. There are many other approaches but there is some incredible and fascinating research surrounding this breath retention approach (which is similar to the breath work used by free divers) and on a personal level I have found these techniques practiced regularly to be incredibly supportive to good mental health. You can learn the technique and track your retentions using the app or simply learn more via his website. I’m not sponsored by him or anything I have just truly benefited so much from this work and want to spread the word.
Next week we explore the visualisations stage!
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Uma and Nirlipta ~ https://www.yoganidranetwork.org/