The power of one breath never ceases to amaze me. I can be tightly wound, worried, or on alert, and one slow, deep breath, especially one into the back of my body, leaning back in my chair, or dropping into my heels, and I am on the path back to presence, moment-to-moment mindfulness, relief.

Our bodies want to be on guard and ready for anything; we are wired for survival. And the yogis discovered the most immediate toggle switch for our autonomic nervous system was our ability to control our breath. Breathing is a process that happens without us thinking, but reveals deeper levels of awareness the more we refine it.

We continue our journey through the eight limbs of yoga with prāṇāyāma, the fourth limb. This can show up in your asana practice with the instruction to valve your breath as you smoothly breath in and out (ujjayi, victorious breath), simply extending your inhales and/or exhales. You may be asked to extend your breath, or pause at the top and/or bottom of a breath. There are other more complicated practices, but working with breath length, ratio, and valving are the three main ways to learn to control your prāṇā, your vital life force.

I first committed to a regular prāṇāyāma practice when one of my teachers, Gary Kraftsow, when asked if prāṇāyāma could be dangerous, teased us by saying, no, because you won’t do it. I took that as a challenge and started to do a very simple practice every morning that showed me the profound difference even a short practice could make on my nervous system.  I return to this practice a month ago when I noticed I wasn’t sleeping as well with the transition to fall (see below).

It’s been said a million times this year – we are in uncertain times. We’re going to just have to keep taking this one breath at a time.

Simple Practice
1. find a seat (chair, cushion, floor)
2. notice your breath as it is
3. begin to count as you inhale, notice the length (3? 4? 5?) and exhale the same count
4. do this for a minute of so, then lengthen both inhale and exhale by one count
5. repeat step 4. until you find a length that is sustainable (you don’t feel out of breath or strained)
6. continue as long as you have time for – 3 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes
7. release the extension of the breath and return to your “everyday breath”
8. notice how you feel
9. do this DAILY for at least a week and notice how you feel

Posted by: Anne Phyfe Palmer, 8 Limbs Founder & Director of Education & Programming

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