Learn To Breathe
“The length of your life,” said Swami Rama, “is measured in the number of your breaths.” Likewise, said Yogi Ramachakara, if we learn to breathe properly it “will lengthen our days upon the earth by giving us increased vitality” as well as the power to fend off sickness. If we breathe improperly, however, it will shorten our days, drain our vitality, and leave us vulnerable to sickness.
Few people ever think about how they breathe. But Yoga, Tai-Chi and Chi-Gong, martial arts, weightlifting, athletics, professional singing, and meditation all emphasize proper breathing. In meditation, typically, the breathing recommended is continuous slow, deep, calm breaths. While the martial artist uses his breath to remain calm during sparing or in a physical confrontation. Notably, in Chinese and Japanese martial arts, the breath is said to go down into the lower tan tien, or the stomach region.
How someone breathes tells us a lot about who they are. It reflects and reveals their state of mind, emotions, and health. If they are sick or suffering from stress or anxiety, they will breathe in short, sharp breaths. If they are calm, they will breathe slowly and effortlessly. Yet, our breathing doesn’t just reflect our state of mind; it also affects it, along with our emotions, ability to carry out a physical task, and even our health.
Proper breathing, then, is essential to developing a calm, confident state of mind. And it is as essential to good health as a healthy diet and proper exercise. If you want to develop greater control over your emotions (especially stress), or if you want to break free of your limitations and develop yourself as a person, you must become conscious of how you breathe and you must work to develop it.
The martial artist typically exhales as he or she punches or kicks, for example. The weightlifter exhales as he lifts a heavy barbell. The professional photographer will exhale as he presses the button on the camera. And the tailor will exhale as he cuts cloth. Again, in traditional Chinese and Japanese ink painting, the painter will exhale as he makes a stroke with the brush. For the martial artist, breathing out while striking puts all of his or her internal power into the technique. The same can be said of the weightlifter lifting a heavy weight. For the photographer, tailor, and artist, it helps to steady the hand, to make sure there is no shaking, which might ruin the photograph, cloth, or painting.
In the West, we tend to breathe into the chest, expanding our lungs only partially. Sometimes people who have anxiety are taught to breathe with the stomach. But when they feel anxious they will merely switch from using the chest to using the stomach. Their chest goes dead and their stomach balloons and deflates beneath the ribs. Consequently, they are not breathing to close to full capacity or in a relaxed manner.
In martial arts and exercises like Chi Gong, air is taken in through the nose and goes deep down “into the stomach,” as it is often said. In reality, the yogi, martial artist, or meditator uses their diaphragm. As the diaphragm contracts, the belly expands and the lungs are filled with air.To make full use of your lungs, simply inflate the chest and then stomach, or at the same time, as you breathe in. Then, as you exhale, deflate the chest and stomach.
Practice this until it becomes natural. Then try to lengthen your breaths. If you tend to breathe in for four seconds and then breathe out for another four seconds, try lengthening the inhalation and exhalation to perhaps six or seven seconds each for a week or so. Then, once you are comfortable with that, try to extend it to ten seconds. Eventually, you will be able to extend one inhalation and exhalation to thirty seconds, a minute, or longer.
However, do not strain, forcing yourself to take in as much air as possible. Breathing is not a competition. Instead, savor your breathing. Just as you might enjoy drinking a glass of wine, good food, or incense, take a few minutes a day to enjoy your breathing. Breathe slow and deep, expanding your chest and stomach. Feel yourself becoming calm and relaxed as you breathe.
Get into the habit of experiencing and enjoying your breathing. Do this every day until it becomes automatic. When you are facing a stressful situation, become conscious of your breathing, and instead of allowing it to speed up, breathe slowly and deeply until you regain emotional control.