You realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind
( Eckhart Tolle Practising the Power of Now)
Conscious breathing and meditation/mindfulness are becoming more popular, and even more so now, as we look for ways to manage challenges of isolation and lack of connection during lockdowns.
I have been practising conscious breathing for over 30 years, first as part of my yoga practice and then as a yoga teacher. Conscious breathing allows me to feel more present, more grounded. I feel more connected to myself and to others. It also gives me a rush of energy which I channel into my writing and other creative projects. It helps me to focus, set goals and achieve what I want. Feeling better about myself, I then feel more confident in what I’m doing and stronger in my convictions about what matters to me. At the same time, conscious breathing brings gentleness.
In my first yoga training, I meditated at 5am and 9pm every day and felt a strong sense of peace. Life on an ashram lends itself to this pure practice. Back in London, I found it hard to maintain a regular practice, as do many of us, for lots of different reasons – boredom, my to-do list, that pointless anxiety for the future or the past. I needed to rediscover that peace within my busy life of commuting, teaching in sometimes challenging situations, such as prisons as well as making time for my writing, theatre-making and yoga. I needed a stress release and at the same time, the energy and confidence to keep going with all these things. Because traditional meditation is about just sitting and watching the mind, it felt like too much of a contrast to the busyness of my life, whereas in conscious breathing, there is a focus – something to do and to think about so it works better for me. It enables me to deal with some of the blocks that I put in my way and helps me to find a more regular practice.
Conscious breathing is a series of exercises that teaches us different ways to manipulate the breath. There is a simplicity in their execution, and yet complexity in the science in which they are grounded. For each exercise, we focus on the inhale, the exhale or the retention of the breath, and sometimes all three. We increase oxygen or prana to our brain and this makes us feel good. As we become more conscious of the breath, we become more conscious of ourselves, more present, more aware and we’re all trying to be more present in life. Breathing consciously connects us to our conscience! Some say that this is our soul or the Divine and that connecting with the Divine is the key goal of pranayama.
I first experienced conscious breathing in Sivananda yoga practice as pranayama: The vital force. Prana is life, vitality, energy or strength. Ayama means length, expansion or restraint’ (Swami Sivananda)
And BKS Iyengar writes that pranayama teaches us to ‘Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind. . . It cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves’ (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)
As a theatre practitioner, my yoga practice was already feeding into my rehearsal room; in voice classes, as we worked on the breath; also in physical theatre classes where I was inspired by Grotowski who had used yoga as part of his practice. We all learn from each other. When I was made redundant from the Royal Court Theatre, I was hugely disappointed but, finding myself with an unexpected gap in my career, I set off to Sivananda HQ to do the teacher training and began the journey that brought me to teaching, first yoga and then conscious breathing.
I continued the Sivananda style of including some conscious breathing at the start of class in my yoga teaching. Sivananda teachings say that we must not overdo the pranayama, we need to keep a balance. I understood this but I still felt we could do more with it. I wondered if, instead of being the introduction to the class, the conscious breathing could become, as it were, the main event.
And so in 2019, I completed the first-ever training of Altered States: The Breath. The course was inspired by both Hatha and Kundalini yoga; by teachings around addictions plus it refers to breath experts such as Wim Hof. I learnt how to manipulate the breath to:
1 Change how I feel.
2 Increase the flow of ‘positive’ hormones in the body leaving me feeling uplifted, with a sense of calm and well being.
3 Decrease ‘negative’ hormones, leaving me feeling calmer and less likely to react when stressed.
4 Increase breath capacity.
How amazing to be able to create stillness and calm by increasing dopamine; exhilaration by increasing endorphins and positive feelings of well being by increasing Serotonin; this in turn improves digestion and sleep and we enter a more positive cycle.
At the same time, we decrease adrenaline and cortisol that we only need in high levels when we’re in real danger, of say, being eaten by a lion whilst out hunting! Globally there is a huge increase in stress levels. This sometimes leads to greater reliance on addictive substances and poor mental health which can add to the sense of fear, so our bodies produce more adrenaline and we are in a negative cycle. By slowing down the breath we shift from this fight/flight mode.
To begin we release the vagus nerve, the biggest nerve in the body, which runs from the brain stem through to the guts. This resets the nervous system, it ‘powers up’ the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the hormonal flow to shift. The exercises build breath capacity which improves the health of the lungs, heart and digestion. Reducing stress in the body has the same effect, so there are clear physical benefits as well as positive feelings of well being.
Some of the exercises are simple versions of what we all do naturally. I do one with my mum who has dementia. Others require greater concentration – and it is this focus that is freeing from my overthinking, chattering mind.
Crucially, we pause after each exercise as, to quote Grotowski, ‘It is what happens in between the exercises that counts. . .’ This is the stillness and focus on the present moment and we ask ourselves ‘How am I feeling now?’, having asked it at the top of the class. Usually, there is a noticeable shift. At the end of the class we lie in silent relaxation, then again we observe how we are feeling in our bodies and minds. I love how my yoga feeds into my theatre work and vice versa. I am constantly developing my practice and currently feeding in some movement from my theatre practice. This keeps it fresh and brings a sense of playfulness and creativity.
One of the best things about conscious breathing is its accessibility. I can do it literally anywhere: in bed the moment I wake or the last thing before sleep; whilst walking in nature or at my desk, in my garden or park. I hope to be able to do it again on a beach somewhere. I love how I can check in with myself and decide what I need, which techniques will help me today; and I love how naturally it comes. After all it is an extension of what we do from the moment we arrive on this earth, to the moment we depart – breath.
Laura is offering a free taster 40 min session plus a Q&A on April 29th at 8am on Zoom.
You can contact Laura on firstname.lastname@example.org for further information and to sign up.