At one end of the breathing spectrum is an unconscious, unaware breath. At the other is breath that is controlled, consciously and deliberately, as in pranayama. The natural breath is in between the two extremes. It is free and easeful, with no forcing and not controlled.
It is effortless, without strain or tension. It helps to release physical tension. It enables correct exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It helps you relax, concentrate, be more present, be more at peace, and have more energy. It brings about a relaxed, grounded and centred state of being.
Yoga teacher Donna Farhi describes it as “a conscious flow that arises out of the depth of our being and dissolves effortlessly back into our core. It arises from a background that is still and silent and dissolves back into this same stillness”.
It activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which enables restoration and rejuvenation) rather than the sympathetic nervous system (the one that puts us in ‘fight or flight’ stress response, ‘running on adrenaline’).
Our breathing becomes restricted due to stress, poor posture (particularly desk workers), being too busy, and a mind that is constantly reacting to external overstimulation rather than feeling what is going on in our bodies. Most people I see do not breathe correctly. Nor do they often if ever think about it. They unconsciously hold on to their breath or it is erratic, shallow or too fast. Is this you?!
If you are breathing like this, it is contributing to a state of physical and mental tension and stress. Physically, you may not be taking enough oxygen into the lungs and consequently to the heart, brain, other organs and the cells.
It can create an imbalance in the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide can make you agitated; vice versa can cause fatigue, anxiety and depression.
Lack of sufficiently oxygenated blood circulating around the body can affect your skin, mean your muscles tire quickly on exertion or exercise, and make you feel lethargic generally.
Energetically, since the breath is the primary source of prana, breathing incorrectly means not enough prana being generated, or that its flow around the body is restricted. This eventually leads to not only low energy but to bodily ailments and issues.
Natural breathing needs to happen 24/7, all day and all night. Not just for a few minutes’ deep breathing here and there, when we remember, or in a yoga lesson.
Returning to natural breathing starts with awareness. Remind yourself what it feels like, and constantly check in with it. I say ‘return’ and ‘remind’ because we already know, though we forget. A natural breath is:
Free. Effortless, easeful, no pushing or forcing.
Pulsating. Moving the body from the inside out.
Non-doing. You have the sense of being breathed, rather than doing the breath.
Diaphragmatic. You are clearly aware of your breath arising from the diaphragm rather than the chest or nose.
Even and steady, arising from a calm space.
Seamless and fluid, moving through a supple and flexible body.
Changeable. It responds naturally to external situations when necessary, but returns to evenness.
Paradoxical. It has both stillness and multi-directional movement (inwards and outwards, expanding in all directions).
A longer exhale than inhale. This promotes the parasympathetic nervous system I mentioned above.
Energetic. Prana flows through the medium of the breath.
Until you have got back in the habit of natural breathing, check often how you are breathing. Remember that you are observing, not controlling. This is not a breathing ‘exercise’; it is observation. This may be harder than it sounds, so check regularly and often.
How to reconnect with your breath
Doing this sitting in a quiet place is ideal. But you can do it at your desk, in a meeting, on the tube or the bus... No one need know, and it takes only a few moments. And like most things, the more we practise it, the better we get at it.
Keeping the ten qualities above in mind, sit quietly with the lips closed. First, observe where you feel your breathing, no matter how small the movement. Observe the abdomen, chest, ribcage, shoulders, throat, nostrils, and out to the peripheral parts of the body. Nothing is insignificant. Do not change the breath, do not judge it, do not analyse it. Simply be aware.
After a few minutes, ask what your breathing feels like. Note mentally whether it is even or uneven, deep and diaphragmatic or shallow, smooth or erratic, free or tense, if the inhale or exhale is longer or if they are the same. Make no judgement.
These simple observations build your awareness and remind you throughout the day to let go of tension in the breath and to breathe naturally. To explore this topic in depth, with techniques for observing and connecting with the breath, read The Breathing Book by Donna Farhi.
Can you picture yourself going about your day without a constant underlying level of stress and tension, breathing freely and naturally, aware of your body and feeling good in it?! Being in that relaxed, grounded and centred state of being that I mentioned?