For breath is life, and if you breathe well, you will live long on Earth. ~Sanskrit proverb

We live in a fast-paced society where quick fixes are sought out. However, the answer lies in slowing down. So, here we are going to look at slowing down through the use of breath in order to heal.

The Breath of Life: Prana

Breathing is the most vital and powerful function we have for our survival and it is absolutely essential to life. We are inspired by life from our first breath (inhalation), we are nurtured and supported throughout our life until our very last breath (expiration). It is a necessity for good health and is one of the most powerful tools we have that enhances our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Prana is the vital life force energy that runs through our body. This energy is constantly flowing through us and through all living beings, keeping us alive. Pranayama is the act of controlling and directing this energy by "controlling" the flow of breath.

Sources of Pranic Energy

In the simplest form, energy is the ability to do work. There are three main sources of pranic energy: the sun, wind and the ground.

Solar energy is derived from the sun, promotes good health and energizes the entire body. We can obtain solar energy by sunbathing for about five to 10 minutes, or by drinking water that has been exposed to sunlight. However, too much exposure can be harmful.

Wind or air energy is obtained from the pranic energy present in the air. While breathing, prana is absorbed by our lungs. Slow deep rhythmic breaths are recommended.

Ground energy is derived from the life energy present in the ground and is absorbed by the soles of our feet (barefoot walking) and the food we eat from the soil.

("Earthing" includes barefoot walking, so Get Grounded This Earth Day and Try 'Earthing'.)

Conscious/Controlled Breathing

In their book, "The Healing Power of the Breath," doctors Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg write: “Studies are revealing that, by changing the patterns of breathing, it is possible to restore balance to the stress response systems, calm the agitated mind, relieve symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), improve physical health and endurance, elevate performance, and enhance relationships.”

Conscious breathing calms the mind and relaxes the body. When it comes to relieving pain or tension in the body, the practice of pranayama can be used in a powerful way for healing. Conscious breathing can reduce a number of psychological ailments like anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, and ADD to name a few. Slow, deep, controlled breaths can lower cortisol levels by calming the parasympathetic nervous system (think rest and digest), slow the heart rate, increase intestinal and glandular activity and relax the sphincter muscles of the digestive tract.

Our body needs oxygen. Optimal functioning occurs when we have sufficient oxygen and carbon dioxide balance in our body. This is done by slowing down and becoming aware of how we are breathing. Many of us have a tendency to breathe quick, small, shallow breaths (oxygen insufficiency). Our breath becomes confined to our chest with little visible movement. To make matters worse, we contract/hold our breath or stop breathing altogether for short periods during stressful and mentally/physically challenging situations. This lack of breath (prana) increases the tension within our body, impeding blood flow, nutrients and vital life force energy. Also, our lungs are a major organ of elimination, with quick shallow breaths, this all-important elimination is compromised. This leads to dis-ease and cellular damage.

(More on this in Exhaling Muscle Pain & Tension: 3 Benefits of Yogic Breathing (Plus a Sample Exercise).)

Cultivating Pranic Energy

When we don't breathe deeply, we deprive our body of the oxygen it needs to function. We feel sluggish, tired, are less creative, suffer from chronic inflammation, high blood pressure and a varying array of other diseases.

You know that our breathing is the inhaling and exhaling of air. The organ that serves for this is the lungs that lie 'round the heart, so that the air passing through them thereby envelops the heart. Thus, breathing is a natural way to the heart. And so, having collected your mind within you, lead it into the channel of breathing through which air reaches the heart and, together with this inhaled air, force your mind to descend into the heart and to remain there. ~Nicephorus the Solitary

The quality of your breath determines the quality of your life... Think about the word "RELAX"...It's almost instinctive when we hear or even think of the word, our shoulders automatically drop from around our ears and we offer a sigh (deep exhalation) of relief. And for that split fleeting moment, the chatter in our mind is hushed and tension magically dissipates.

Think of breath control as hitting the "RELAX" button whenever you want. This will be challenging in the beginning, but, with practice and consistency, the results will last longer and the practice will come with more ease. There are many different breath practices, however. In each, you will learn to stay present, participate in regulating your own nervous system and, eventually, develop new, more resourceful and helpful ways of living.

STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND TAKE A FEW DEEP BREATHS.

Close your eyes and pay close attention to your breathing. Try and avoid thinking about anything else. It helps to count your breaths, giving your active brain something to do and retaining your focus on your breath. This interrupts the acceleration of your mind (thoughts) and helps you slip into a more peaceful state (ideal for healing and recovery). Your breath is the most important thing right now!

A Challenge for You

Allow yourself to get in a comfortable position; seated or lying. Slowly, inhale from your belly (think about pushing your belly out). Inhale for the count of four (think four full seconds). Exhale, drawing your belly in (i.e. navel to spine) for another four full seconds.

Breathe in slowly (think quality) through your nose and exhale slowly out your mouth. This practice will reset your nervous system from that of stress to that of relaxation and stability. Purify and cleanse your body with each inhalation and exhalation. During an exhalation, open your jaw wide and allow for a large volume of air to move through your trachea. You can also try adding a “HA” sound as a way to vibrate and increase the opening of your heart and clearing of stagnant energy.

Stretch, move, feel into your breath. Let your entire body breathe. Breathing is both regenerative and restorative. As we lengthen our breath, we begin to cleanse the body and mind of built-up toxins, reduce tension due to stress, think clearly, sleep better and ultimately feel better. Many yogis believed that the length of one's life is determined by number of breaths, not by number of years. The deeper you breathe, the longer you can live.

Breath is Spirit. The act of breathing is living. ~Unknown