Pranayama for Riding the Wave

A couple of days ago, I embarked on yet another major life change. I left Los Angeles, where I’ve been living for the last two and a half years, and returned to the Boston area. Though I’m coming back to a familiar place, I'm not sure how I’m going to support myself here. As a freelancer, my professional life is replete with question marks, a frequent source of anxiety.

On top of that, my car and my belongings are currently in transit. I’m staying with my ex-husband (not a hardship, but I’m living out of a suitcase) while I wait for my things to arrive. I wonder what’s ahead of me, what this next chapter of my life is going to hold, if it’s going to be as emotionally challenging as the Los Angeles chapter. My mind races; sometimes even my heart races. I long to slow down and trust that everything will work itself out.

One solution? Pranayama, the art of breath control—one of the eight limbs of yoga. “When you feel nervous and excited, the breath is more shallow,” says Micah Mortali, Director of the Kripalu Schools, “but when you deepen the breath, the mind mirrors that slower wave.”

Micah says that you can disrupt the fight-or-flight response and shift to the relaxation response through pranayama, a concentration practice that not only prepares you for meditation, but also decreases heart rate and lowers blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

I asked Micah for an exercise that could help me stop spinning my mental wheels, and he suggested dirgha pranayama, or three-part breath.

It’s pretty simple. Sit with your spine long, focusing your mind on the breath. For beginners, Micah suggests five minutes of practice.

Part One: Inhale through the nose, allowing your belly to expand softly as the breath moves into your lungs. Then exhale through your nose, tightening your abdominal muscles and drawing your belly button to the spine, allowing as much air as possible to escape from your lungs.

Part Two: Much the same, with an added step. Inhale through the nose, allowing your belly to expand, and then allow the breath to expand your rib cage as well. When you exhale through the nose, squeeze the air out of your rib cage and belly until they’re empty.

Part Three: Take it a step farther. Inhale through the nose, allowing your belly to expand as the breath moves into your lungs and rib cage, and then invite the breath into your upper chest, to your pectoral muscles and clavicle. Then exhale fully.

“It should feel like a gentle wave of motion,” says Micah. “There should be a thorough emptying of the breath.”

I spent a handful of minutes practicing dirgha pranayama today. I sat in a comfortable place, closed my eyes, and really focused on the sensation of the breath expanding my belly, my rib cage, and eventually my upper chest.  There were times when my mind raced as I breathed. “It’s not working,” I thought, but I stuck with it. And, as I did, I gradually felt myself wind down internally. The busy gears that turn my mind’s mental wheels began to rotate more slowly.

At one moment, I felt emotional about leaving Los Angeles and the people I’ve become closest to. I allowed the tears to bubble up, knowing that they would fade away, just as I know that my anxieties about starting life over on the East Coast will bubble up and fade away, too. Perhaps that’s the benefit of pranayama: I can watch my thoughts and emotions without being attached to them, knowing that they are not me and I am not them. I am greater than what I think and what I feel—and the part of me that is greater is well equipped to handle the uncertainty of starting life over again.

Five minutes of pranayama helped me not just see but also feel the big picture. I can only imagine what a regular practice could do.

Portland Helmich is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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