A Simple Step Toward Clarity of the Mind
By Marjorie Biggs…
The mind-body connection is a pathway. Just like any path, there is a potential for travel both ways. We use our mind to communicate information to the body all the time. We want to move our arm so our brain, motivated by a thought, sends signals through our nervous system that simulates and coordinates the muscular movement necessary to mobilize our joints. Likewise, we can flip that switch and access the mind through the body. One of those ways is through the primary function of our respiratory system: breathing.
The practice of breathwork in yoga is called pranayama and is the fourth of the eight yogic limbs. Broken down, prana means vital (life) force and ayaman means expansion. So literally, pranayama means “expansion of the vital force”. David Frawley explains the relationship between mind and prana simply in his book, Yoga and Ayurveda (p.242). He states that in classical yoga, prana has an important influence on the mind since “the vibration of the mind (chitta-spanda) follows the vibration of prana (prana-spanda)”. I have witnessed the different aspects of this flow professionally as a teacher and energy healing practitioner, as well as through personal practice, and of course in ‘normal’ (whatever that is) daily life.
One example of this relationship dynamic is that often during times of mental stress such as fear, anger, and/or overwhelm, we may tend to hold or restrict the flow of our breath. Here we can see clearly how our breath reflects our state of mind. In Western scientific terms we can explain this involuntary holding of the breath as one of the many natural symptoms of sympathetic nervous system response, a.k.a. our natural fight or flight response to stress.
Although, there are times when this response is necessary, most of us do this at times when it is not and remain in this state somewhat perpetually. We can live in this particular pattern of response, often as a result of overactivity of the mind. We have so much to do and manage on a daily basis, not to mention the constant overwhelm of external stimulations. Practicing breath consciousness can aid us in reversing the flow of information which can help us refrain from unnecessary prolonged sympathetic response and aid parasympathetic nervous system activation. In the former condition we can not only restore our physical bodies and therefore mindful breath but also, as a result, sustain our vital life force energy.
There are various types of pranayama where we practice breath control in different ways for multiple purposes, all of which come back to life force expansion. However, we should start very simply and continue with slow and patient practice. The first step toward controlling anything is understanding, which takes time. The most basic, yet effective and often overlooked, form of working with the breath is to simply become aware of your breath in the moment, to become conscious that you breathe and to experience your breath as-is. This noticing strengthens the flow of experience from breath to mind.
There are many avenues that can help you bring attention to the breath, although when you first set out with this intention you may find it a little difficult to focus on your own. Let’s face the facts: sitting in quiet stillness is a learned practice where many people may initially find resistance. Alternative activities that may help with this endeavor including taking a yoga or Pilates class where teachers will link breath and movement cueing and often simply remind attendees to breathe. Through these spoken reminders you may start to notice instances where you are ‘out of breath” or that you just ‘forget’ to breathe (unconscious holding). Then you may start to become aware when this occurs in daily life. It’s okay - it happens. What is important here is that in noticing and experiencing this disconnect and its effect you are taking a valuable step when you aim to use your body/breath as a pathway to impact your state of mind.