Our breath is uniquely powerful in that it sits at the intersection of our somatic nervous system (the aspects of our physiology under our voluntary control) and our autonomic nervous system (that which happens automatically, like our heart beat). When we consciously control our breath in an effective way, we have a direct path of communication to our brain. The way we breathe can literally shift our physical and emotional state. Pretty darn cool!
While Western science is playing catch up, breath control (Pranayama) has been a central aspect of yogic philosophy for thousands of years. From a yogic standpoint, breath is a tool for creating greater clarity and awareness. With this sense of clarity, we can shine a light on the reality of our life challenges. We are then better placed to take strong, coherent action that serves us and our goals.
One of the most straight-forward techniques is Sama Vritti, or ‘equal modulation breath’. It has a profoundly calming effect on the body and mind - refer to this blog post for the science behind it.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Find a quiet space. If it is comfortable for you, close your eyes. Otherwise, softly focus your gaze on a still point.
2. Take a minute to notice the natural flow of your breath, without trying to alter its depth or rhythm. It can help to place a hand on your belly or chest.
3. Take in a deeper than normal breath, feeling your belly expand, then open your mouth, and exhale with the sound you would make to fog up a mirror.
4. Repeat this breath with the same sound, but this time with your mouth closed. You should feel a slight contraction at the back of your throat.
5. Continue with this oceanic sound as you breath in and out to an equal count. Don’t worry about forcing a longer breath than is comfortable, as long as your inhale and exhale is the same length, you’re on the right track.
Studies are showing that 30 minutes of daily pranayama practice like the one described are having significant effects on anxiety, depression, PTSD and insomnia. Pranayama is a totally free and low risk addition to your mental wellness toolkit.
My view is that even a few minutes is better than nothing. From my own experience, even 3 minutes of Sama Vritti before bed is enough to help me go to sleep more quickly, and rest more deeply.