Breathing is everything. Ok, to be more authentic, my experiences have shown me that conscious breathing is the most important thing you can do to kick start mindfulness. Mindfulness being important because it leads to an awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings and the more aware one is of oneself the happier one is. The happier you are, the more comfortable you are in your own skin, the better you can express who you are. That is the key. This takes on an even deeper meaning because I believe we are spiritual beings living out a human experience, and an experience that can only truly be fulfilled if we all live the most true and full expression of ourselves.
The best part about conscious breathing is that anyone can practice it, anytime they want. In this case, when I use the term breath work, it is referring to breathing exercises (usually done seated on the ground or chair), which you can also simply call meditations.
There are numerous scientific studies that use mechanical computers to monitor changes in brain activity during meditation, and eventually I will delve into a few of them for you. Until then, if you are interested in reading the technical jargon then I highly encourage you research it. The information being gleaned through these computers is a fascinating contemporary confirmation of thousands of years old yogic science. However, all the reading in the world won’t give you a real experience which is really the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Reading will get you the knowledge, but sitting down and giving it a go will create the moment and bring wisdom.
There are two meditations which I feel compelled to share today, one from Kundalini yoga, which is among the most ancient yogic branches, and the 21st century Wim Hof method. These are part of my daily yoga practice and I credit them with clearing my body—especially my mind—of all the tar clogging me up from the drug abuse of my twenties. I’d say I feel like I did when I was a kid, back before the drug addiction which sent me into a downward spiral of self-loathing, yada yada… but really and truly, I feel better than I’ve ever felt, kid-self or not.
If you do these meditations in the morning, you will be prepping your mind and body for the day’s challenges. It’s like stretching and rolling out on a foam roller before a long run through the mountains; The little stresses you put on your leg muscles loosen them up for the up and down demands of the trail.
The power and energy inherent in every breath we take is not to be underestimated. With that said, all the power of these exercises will do little for you if you don’t treat them as such. Our expectations—which are essentially thoughts—contain energy and that energy creates our reality. If you expect to fail, you will fail. But if you expect success, you will succeed. You’ve got to believe!
Alternate Nostril Breathing (and variations for advanced interest)
Throughout the day, our body changes up which nostril we breathe most through. This breath work focuses the energy through specific nostrils which balances the energy channels within the body. It can be done for a few minutes or up to 150 minutes but always increase the length of time slowly, adding a few minutes every other day or as you feel is appropriate. You are you own best teacher.
· Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and your knees below your hips, with the objective that no muscles be working to hold you erect.
o If you are seated in a chair, sit on a firm cushion to raise your butt a bit.
o If you are seated Indian style, sit your butt up on enough firm cushions or blankets that your knees are below your hips. OR Sit back on your heels, maybe with a cushion between your legs to raise your butt off your heels.
· Close your eyes
· Lengthen through the back of your neck.
· Rest your hands in a comfortable position, either in your lap or on your knees.
· Bring your awareness to your whole body. Notice how you feel. Notice any areas that feel relaxed or constricted.
· Notice your breath. Notice the length of the inhale and exhale. Notice the depth.
· Block your right nostril with the index finger of your right hand. Inhale deeply for a count of four.
· Move that finger to block your left nostril. Exhale for a count of four.
· Continue for five minutes.
· Play around with increasing the length of the inhales and exhales. Play around with adding breath retention. Breath retention is when you inhale and hold the breath for a period of time before exhaling. Breath suspension is when you exhale and hold the breath out for a period of time before inhaling.
· After the last cycle: release pressure on the left nostril and breathe in deeply through both open nostrils. Hold the breath for ten seconds. Exhale. Begin normal breathing.
· Notice how you feel.
Intermediate practice (Instructions are same with one exception.)
Instead of closing your eyes, gaze at the tip of your nose. According to Kundalini science, this will stimulate the pituitary gland which produces critical hormones that regulate your body. It is said that alcohol, cocaine, cigarettes, adderall, pain killers, xanax, and even marijuana, all interfere with the pituitary gland. Your body cannot be healthy and whole if its glands are malfunctioning.
This is a strong exercise and should be respected. Increase the time slowly. For example, beginning with three minutes a day and increasing by a three more minutes every week.
Advanced--Sodarshan Chakra Kriya
This is said to be the most powerful yogic kriya. A kriya is a series of postures, breath work, and/or vocal work that are designed to achieve a specific and simultaneous change in the physical, mental, and spiritual body. This kriya works. It cleans out the body and especially cleans out the brain. I did this kriya for 70 days straight and worked up to 60 minute sessions. It is powerful and intense.
If you have abused drugs, this will rebalance your brain. After the drugs, I suffered from mood swings and moments of depression. I now feel that my bad attitude was brought about because my body could not regulate my hormones as it was supposed to. Everything was off. Our bodies are finely tuned instruments and, like a guitar where if one string is off in a chord than the whole chord is off, if your energy meridians and glands are out of whack then you’re out of tune.
During my initial 70 day run, I felt enormous heat building up and dissipating all along my spine and deep into my brain, and for the first three weeks I sweated profusely while practicing. This is real stuff.
The best resource for this kriya is from the organization founded by the man, Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the United States.
Note: I enjoy practicing this before the Wim Hof Method as it balances your energy channels before you supercharge them with Wim Hof Method.
Wim Hof Method
I was very skeptical of this breathing when it was first brought to my attention. It was described to be tripping off oxygen deprivation and that seemed…unnecessary. This was before my experiments with yogic pranayama and meditation and perhaps it wasn’t explained too well but more likely I simply wasn’t ready to consider breathwork as anything but boring. Fast forward two years when I finally gave it a go and I’ll say everyone should give it a chance.
In a nutshell:
- Power Breath Breathe deeply thirty to forty times while exhaling softly—this takes in more oxygen (read: more prana/life energy/chi) than you let out. You are supercharging your physical body with energy.
- Breathe Suspension On your last exhale, suspend the breath for as long as you can, then...
- Recovery Breath Inhale deeply, retain the breath for 10-20 seconds, exhale and...
Breathe normally, do another round (up to six or till you feel you have done enough), or sit still and meditate.
Yes. There is a lot going on in your body during all this.
The extra oxygen increases the PH of your blood. This is good because most of us have blood that is too acidic. What lowers your PH? Depression, stress, anxiety, pollution, cheese, animal flesh, cigarettes, any vinegar other than apple cider vinegar…basically a lot of things. When we feel stressed out, that lowers our PH, which makes us feel more stressed out, but if we begin the day with a higher PH we do better against those things which lower PH. Acidic blood also lowers your bodies efficiency, reducing recovery time from effort, and reducing your bodies effectiveness at combating disease. Sure, you could have too high PH, but it would be pretty hard to do so with this breath work and your body would tell you to stop.
Wim Hof says that when you hold your breath for longer than 1:30 seconds, parts of your brains begin to quiet, you aren’t breathing anymore so your brain begins to conserve energy. And when you breathe again, your brain kicks into full gear with a boost of energy throughout. It feels pretty good. Part of this is a bigger than usual release of adrenaline, which lowers your body’s immune response—this last bit, which I will soon expand on, is one of the most fascinating effects of the breathwork.
By doing this breathwork, you are consciously influencing your sympathetic nervous system and immune system. Most Western doctors would say this impossible. Most Eastern monks would say they’ve been doing this for thousands of years. Wim Hof has been injected with endotoxins and has neutralized it within 15 minutes and then taught 12 people to do the same.
On the yogic side—holding your breath balances out the male/female energy. Not breathing creates an opportunity to face your fear of losing control. Your mind/body wants to breathe, but you choose not to, then it becomes uncomfortable, maybe you get a little stressed out, but you hold firm. Your mind/body Wanting to breathe is a male energy and by holding off you strengthen your female energy.
This is extra good for Americans because, let’s face it, the rest of the world knows we are prone to wanting to be in control.
Instructions from Wim Hof:
Here are a few more thoughts and tips:
· This is my favorite breath work before my morning meditation.
· I do this breath work every morning, right after a little alternate nostril breathing to balance the energy.
· I find that my body has a much larger energy reserve to tap from, even ten hours after the breath work.
· I notice that my mind is quieter and my presence is greater within any given moment during the day.
· For your first session, I recommend laying down, flat on the floor. Do three rounds.
· The next day, do up to six rounds.
· When you feel the gasp reflex to breathe…BREATHE. If you don’t, you risk blacking out and hitting your head on something. I know this, because one time I decided to hold my breath past the gasp reflex. Egoic competition against myself got the better of me. I momentarily blacked out, started convulsing, fell off my zafu and hit my head on the wall. During all of this, my mind was still telling my body not to breathe. It wasn’t until I shook my head clear of the wall bump that I realized I was still not breathing (I was, however, still convulsing). Gloria was not pleased with me.
· Always listen to the teacher within.
That’s about all I got for now, but there are many, many podcasters out there who’ve interviewed Wim Hof so the sky’s the limit for audio and video interviews to satisfy your interest.
I no longer practice Wim Hof breathing. I have found other breathing patterns which feel better to me for energizing the body and which will be discussed in a future blog post. Until I do, you can check out Kundalini Yoga's segmented breath at www.3ho.com .
NOTE: My statements have not been verified by any United States Government organizations.