The other day I found myself saying, If I could teach everyone in the world one thing, it would be how to find their own breath. I think that of all the things I've learned in my years of doing yoga, of all the practices I've been given, this is the most powerful. This one simple thing: to remember to seek my breath and then learn to observe it, to deepen it or to hold it, to count it, to follow it or send it deliberately through the body... This is the key to all of the other practices for me. I truly believe that if all people learned to be aware of their own breath, the world would be a better place.
You don't have to "buy into" the system of yoga to access this practice. You don't have to believe in chakras or worship Ganesha. You don't have to be in a studio or own a yoga mat - and nobody has to know you are doing this practice if you don't want them to. Since we took our first breath, this simple action of moving air in and out of our bodies has been part of our connection to this earth: our greatest gift, our birthright. We all do it without being aware of it - but with awareness, the breath can be the key to calming the mind, coping with stress and anxiety, navigating grief and anger, or just getting to sleep at night.
There are periods of my life when this is my only practice. Sometimes I simply follow my breath and let go of my thoughts. This works well on the bus, at my desk, before eating - any time I need a moment of quiet. Other times, I deepen my breathing or even sigh and feel the tension melt away. These practices and the three-part yogic breath have helped me release anxiety and go to sleep at night, transforming me from an inveterate insomniac to a good sleeper. The breath of joy energizes me on a sleepy afternoon better than coffee and without keeping me up into the night. Of course, learning to use the breath can also transform the experience of asana, helping release muscles, concentrate the mind, consolidate balance, and more.
In January, I did a daily pranayama, or breath practice including some of the techniques mentioned above and others, including two commonly taught pranayama techniques: nadi sodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, which really enhances my meditation, especially if I'm feeling anxious about something; and kapalabhati, the skull-shining breath, which is another very invigorating practice. I've faded this more formal practice out, but want to return to it as part of my meditation practice since I found it very beneficial.
If you're interested in deepening your relationship with your breath, I highly recommend the book breath: the essence of yoga by Sandra Sabatini. Not only does she give lots of ideas for practice, but the book is basically poetry about the breath - a beautiful, reflective, resonant practice. I leave you with some of her words, because she says it much, much better than I can.
don't push, don't pull (p. 63)
allow the exhalation to travel out of the body
without leaving anything behind
a clean inside
don't be excited, don't be enthusiastic,
just be present, in here
and let the exhalation really move,
truly move out of the lungs
the movements created by the exhalation
are so subtle
you cannot DO them
you can only accept them, receive them, welcome them...
the rest is not in your hands
you can create a space
and then what comes in is a gift