Everybody who lives in a big city knows it’s essential to get out of town now and then. It’s not just the noise, the overcrowding and the lack of nature. It’s the air. When we urban dwellers get a chance to inhale country oxygen, we greedily expand our lungs and loudly exhale giant Ahhhh’s. We savor fresh air like fine wine, feeling drunk and cleansed at the same time. Deep breathing gives us the sense of health, well-being and spaciousness we tend to lose in the crush of metropolitan living.
Every time I go to the seashore, I am awed by the great power of the ocean. Each wave rolling in is completely new and different from every other wave, and this observation inspires me to wake up and relax into the vastness in front of me. Yet as soon as I step off the sand and back into the parking lot, I forget all about the ocean. But whether I think about it or not, it’s still there, rolling in and out, wild or calm, with undercurrents or white caps.
In the same way, even though we don’t notice it, we are always breathing, and just like the waves on the shore, each breath is unique. The act of mindfully watching our breathing can have as profound an effect as watching the ocean waves-it can help us feel alive and expansive.
Some yogis say we are given a certain number of breaths per lifetime, so it’s recommended that we breathe slowly and deeply, as well as pay close attention to every breath. While we might not be able to attend to every single breath, we can start the process by doing the breath observation and breath manipulation exercises called pranayama. Pranayama means extension (ayama) of life force (prana). This life force can be found in sun, water, earth, plants, animals, people, and wind or breath.
Even just the slightest hint of breath awareness can begin to change your life. When you get tense, are stuck in traffic, or receive an unexpected letter from the IRS, you will notice that your breath changes. And just as when you go to the country, you can pause and consciously balance your inhalation and exhalation, which will immediately ease your nervous system.
This is called taking a fresh start and it’s available to us every moment. The only problem is that we forget about it. How can we develop the positive habit of taking a fresh start on a regular basis? We can begin by introducing ourselves to our body’s breathing anatomy. Try this:
Sit or lay down and touch the front of your bottom ribs. Trace the shape of your ribs around the sides and as far toward the back as you can reach. Then feel the second rib up from the bottom. Now explore the area between the bottom and second rib. The muscle between the ribs is called an intercostal and it allows the rib cage to open and close like a bellows as we inhale and exhale.
Continue your investigation all the way to the top of your chest. Notice how your ribs are shaped, how they are like a ladder that goes under your armpits, how they go up your back all the way to your neck. Take time to feel how your ribs move more in some places than others. Are there areas of your rib cage that seem tighter or freer? Are there places that are more or less sensitive? Can you direct your breath into the tight or dead spots?
Now that you have met your rib cage, here is a short yoga program to expand the skin and muscles of this area, enabling your breathing to be fuller. These exercises include twists that will spread the back muscles, shoulder and chest openers that support the lungs, side bends to stretch the intercostals and a lion that will cleanse and stimulate the throat chakra-good for avoiding colds and balancing speech. Feel free to touch your ribs again during these exercises. Imagine you have nostrils in the tight places and breath deeply there.
Twist: Lengthen your spine and inhale. Then on the exhale, turn your belly to the right, making a spinal twist. Place your right hand on the floor behind you and tuck your left hand-palm up-under your right thigh. If your hand doesn’t reach under your thigh, place it on top. (If you feel as if you will tip over, place a cushion under your right hip.)
Side Stretch: Unravel from your twist. Extend your left arm to the floor and your right arm up to the ceiling. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, begin to bend to the left. Try to find length on both sides of your waist. Feel how your breath moves into the accordion of your right rib cage. Come back to vertical on an inhale.
Cow: Shift forward onto your hands and knees. Align your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. On an exhale, lift your sitting bones, chest and face up, making a U with your torso. Let your spine soften and absorb into your body.
Proposal Twist: From hands and knees, step your right foot forward and lift your spine, moving into a kneeling position, as if you were going to propose marriage. Place your left hand on your right knee and lengthen your right arm upward, extending long through every single finger, then inhale. On the exhale, twist to the right and reach your right behind you, directly opposite your right knee.
Chest opener and Lion: Unwind and sit down on your calves. Place your fingertips on the floor behind you and as you inhale, lift your chest and face up to the ceiling. Try to maintain some length in the back of your neck. On your exhale, open your eyes and stick your tongue way out, saying “Ahhhhhh.” Lift your eyes up to the point between your eyebrows and try to touch your chin with your tongue. You can repeat the lion several times.
Open Child’s Pose: Inhale and lift back up to vertical. Keep your toes together but separate your knees. Walk your hands forward and ripple through your spine as you fold forward. You can place your forehead or your chin on the floor. Send breath into your hips and let your back sink toward your chest.
Curl Up: Use your hands to help you as you round up through your spine. Try to feel each vertebra on the journey back to sitting tall. Shift your weight over to your left hip and repeat the entire sequence to the other side.
Many people think of yoga as just stretching. But if we only try to get bigger and go out, out, out, it would be like taking a huge breath in and never exhaling. That’s not stretching; that’s grasping. Without a connection to the breath, yoga is just a series of frozen shapes that solidify whatever opinions we already have about who we are and what our bodies can do.
With proper understanding and a little pranayama practice, your yoga can be a seamless process of extending and gathering, of falling back to center and radiating out, over and over again. When we experience this natural rhythm in our yoga practice, we begin to feel a connection to the changing seasons, the movement of night and day, the flow of the tides and the heartbeat of all beings. We begin to make yoga-union-with all of nature.
Whether we’re in the country, the city or the burbs, we can take refuge in our breath. Whenever we remember, we can take a fresh start. Try it now. Close your eyes and let your mind take a ride on your breath, like a raft gently floating on the waves.