Often taken for granted, it is easy to forget the tremendous significance and power of breathing. The first principle of Kundalini Yoga is to value your breath. You are not breathing; each breath is given to you. As Yogi Bhajan said, ‘If there is anything Divine in you, it’s your breath.’
The rate and rhythm of the breath is directly linked to our mental and emotional states. Just as the emotions and mind can affect the breath, so can the breath affect the mind and emotions and gain control over them by slowing down the breathing rate. The average person breathes about fifteen times per minute. As yogis we aim to consciously slow our breathing rate down to 4 breaths a minute, to always stay in control of the mind and emotions. It is excellent if one can practise one-minute breaths whenever possible – try it next time you find yourself waiting in a queue or at the traffic lights!
How to practise one-minute breaths
- Inhale through the nose for a count of 20 seconds, filling your lower abdomen, stomach area, going up to your lungs and then right up to the chest.
- Then lock the breath once you have filled the upper chest, holding the breath in for 20 seconds.
- Finally, exhale through the nose gradually and completely for 20 seconds.
Try it for a few minutes and see how in control you feel afterwards!
Breathing less than eight times per minute stimulates the pituitary gland, the master gland in the brain, to secrete. The pituitary gland is also the control panel for your intuition. The more it secretes, the more accessible your intuition becomes and you know what actions you need to take. The multitude of meditations we have in Kundalini Yoga can help you to call upon your intuition at will, awakening your inner guidance and instantaneous awareness.
Another technique to try is to practise long deep breathing with qualities:
- As you inhale, feel yourself inhaling positive qualities (such as strength, energy, peace).
- As you exhale, feel yourself breathing our the opposite quality (such as weakness, fatigue, tension). This is simple but can be immensely powerful.
- A visual aid may enhance this further for you, such as breathing in golden or white light with a positive quality, and exhaling grey vapour with a negative quality. Really feel you are breathing the goodness into each and every cell on your inhale and completely expelling what you do not want on your exhale.
In order to practise slowing the breathing rate down, it is important to expand your lung capacity. This can be done through the practise of Breath of Fire. Breath of Fire also strengthens the nervous system, purifies the bloodstream, energises you and increases vitality.
How to practise Breath of Fire
- Sit with your spine straight, tuning in with ONG NAMO GURU DEV NAMO three times.
- Inhale through the nose and lift your chest and hold it still.
- Exhale through the nose and pull in on your navel.
- The breath is powered from the navel to the diaphragm. To keep it simple, just focus on your exhale and the simultaneous pulling in of the navel. Start off slow, to get used to coordinating the breath with the movement of your navel point. Gradually you can pick up speed to a regular rhythm at about 120 to 180 breaths per minute.
Even though it may seem like lots of inhalations and exhalations, the effect is as if you have taken only one breath, so it does wonders in calming the mind. Breath of Fire is very cleansing so if your bloodstream is releasing a lot of toxins, you may feel slightly dizzy in the process. Do not fret, this is a good thing as you are beginning to shift those toxins that would otherwise stay locked up in your body, eventually manifesting in some form of sickness. Women should not practise Breath of Fire during menstruation as it increases circulation. Pregnant women should not practise Breath of Fire.
Practise on an empty stomach, starting off for just 30 seconds a day. Gradually build to two minutes after a few days, but keep taking long deep breaths in between if you need to.
The effect of breathing through the left nostril and right nostril
The temperature of the body is regulated by the flow of prana (the energy we receive via our breath) through alternate nostrils. We tend to always have one dominant nostril we are breathing from at all times, and for most people this switches between the two around every 90 minutes. This helps keep your temperature normal and your energies in balance, with your pituitary gland serving as the thermometer to control the switches.
The left nostril draws in the cooling, soothing energy of the moon. The right nostril draws on the sun’s energy, for vitality and mental alertness and warms the body. The left nostril controls our emotions and the right controls our energy level. When feeling tired, try gently blocking the left nostril with your thumb and breathing in and out through the right. If you feel upset or anxious, or need help sleeping, try blocking the right nostril and breathing in and out through the left to relax.
Alternate nostril breathing can be practised as a meditation in itself, to simultaneously calm and energise your whole nervous system. It can be done for just three to five minutes and provide great benefit. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit with a straight spine. Make a ‘U’ with your thumb and index finger of the right hand. Use the thumb to close off the right nostril whilst breathing through the left, and use the index finger to close off the left nostril whilst breathing through the right. The left hand is relaxed on the knee or in Gyan Mudra (the tip of the thumb gently pressing the tip of the index finger).
- Close the left nostril and inhale deeply through the right.
- Then close the right nostril and exhale completely through the left.
- Now inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril and exhale through the right
- Again inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left, continuing with this pattern for three to five minutes.
This is a wonderful mini meditation to do before bed or whenever you need to centre yourself.
Try to be conscious of your breathing throughout your day – if you feel your thoughts racing or emotions bubbling, try and catch yourself by slowing your breathing rate right down. Use your breath as a tool to improve the quality of your everyday experiences.