The Importance of Learning to Breathe
The purpose of alternate-nostril breathing is to balance the left and right sides of the brain and help you to relax and get centered.
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My mother always looked for natural alternatives to cure any and all of our ailments when my sisters and I were growing up. She used to make teas for our sore throats or colds, and put cold towels on our foreheads and necks when one of us had a fever. Her methods had always worked, too.
So I knew I wanted handle my anxiety in the way I was most comfortable. I continue to follow my inner voice, and always encourage every person to listen to their own. Mine kept pointing me to yoga. So the next morning I started to look for an instructor. I also went online and began reading everything I could about yoga. Not just about the postures, but about the underlying philosophy.
Yoga, I discovered, was a lot more than physical movements. It is a philosophy, a spiritual discipline that focuses on helping you know yourself better. Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning to yoke or bind. Maybe it could help me yoke together my body and mind? Maybe it could help me with my panic attacks? I read more about the breathing techniques— pranayama especially—and about meditation. Meditation, like yoga, back then it was just a word floating around in the culture. I’d never meditated in my life. Who had time?
I was too busy. Even if you had the time, why would you bother? When I first met Amy, my new yoga instructor, she emanated a strong sense of serenity and trustworthiness as she walked into my apartment. First, we rearranged a few pieces of furniture and then we sat on the floor using a mat. I told Amy that I had trouble breathing, and that I was afraid to get on my own elevator, so I walked nine flights of stairs instead, and that I was really scared that I was going to die. Amy started telling me about pranayama breathing. She asked me to press one finger against the middle of my forehead and use my thumb to seal my right nostril. Breathe in, she said. Now breathe out through your left. Now do it with your left nostril. Breathe in. Now breathe out through your right. She explained that the purpose of alternate-nostril breathing, as it’s known, is to balance the left and right sides of the brain, which helps you relax and get centered. She then showed me a few yoga postures.
As I said earlier, I’ve always liked to dig deeply into subjects that interest me, and the more I learned about yoga, the more pranayama breathing felt important for my healing. Prana is the universal life force. It’s what distinguishes the living from the dead. It can be found in good-quality foods, correct breathing, and positive thinking. Pranayama breathing just means controlling the universal life-force through your breath, which in time helps bring balance and harmony to the body, the mind, and the spirit, or at least that’s the goal.
Many people in the West think of yoga as physical— a form of exercise focused around asanas or postures. In fact, the entire purpose behind practicing asanas is to stretch and open up our bodies to prepare them for meditation. With Amy as my teacher, I began doing alternate-nostril breathing every morning right as the sun was coming up. It got easier with practice. Meditation helps to cultivate the feeling of being present. Presents mean gifts, and for me, presence was the most amazing gift I could have received.
Try pranayama breathing:
- Close your eyes.
- Bring your right hand to your forehead, and rest your index finger between your eyebrows.
- Close the right nostril with the right thumb.
- Inhale slowly through the left nostril.
- Remove your thumb from your right nostril.
- Use your ring and middle finger to close your left nostril.
- Exhale slowly and completely with the right nostril.
Learn more about the lessons that have shaped Gisele’s life in her New York Times-bestselling memoir, Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life. Get your copy here.