It’s here—the season of cold and colds, furnace heat and flus. This time of year also heralds the holiday season, which carries its own special brand of expectation, tension, and overstimulation. Be they physical or mental, the stressors of wintertime have one thing in common: They can produce shortened or hindered breath. Just when you need the inherent energy and calming quality of full, steady breathing, it retreats.
Today’s Silent Sunday practice provides an antidote to this seasonal challenge. The 3-part series focuses on relaxing the belly, freeing the rib cage, and opening the chest: Each area is partnered with a specific breathing technique. With the resulting ease in body and breath comes a sense of release from from whatever physical or psychological constraints may have been limiting you.
Special note: If you are ill with a cold or flu, body aches and/or fatigue may dissuade you from the active quality of this routine. That is okay: Instead, coddle yourself with a eucalyptus steam bath. Fill a large bowl with boiling water and a few drops of essential oil; with your face near the bowl, cover your head and the basin with a towel, and breathe. After a few minutes, your breath may flow more easily. Then, if you feel up to it, gently practice one or all of the parts of the series. Or, simply have a large glass of water and resume rest.
The warmup for this series is easy, yet it needs full effort to be effective. Standing, begin to vibrate and shake your entire body. Be sure to shake each leg and foot; each arm and hand; the hips, the shoulders, the head, and the torso. Move consciously and powerfully; the idea is to stimulate circulation, release muscle tension, and reset the nervous system. Shake vigorously for 1 minute.
Then, still standing, find a wall with enough clear space to accommodate the length of your arm. Place the pinky edge of the right arm on the wall at shoulder height; the palm faces up, not against the wall. Then, with the arm in full contact of the wall, slowly turn your body away from the wall; this will create an intense stretch through the pectoral muscles, and along the inside of the arm. Gently turn your head away from the wall, looking over the left shoulder. Breathe here for 8 deep, full breaths. Slowly release the stretch, and repeat to the other side.
When you have finished the chest-opening stretch, stand in Mountain Pose, arms by your sides, and eyes closed. Take your mind’s eye to the soles of your feet: Inhale slowly through the nose, using one full breath in to draw the earth’s energy in through the feet, up the inner legs, up the center line of the body and face, and onto the crown. As you exhale through the nose in one long, deep breath, envision the breath traveling down the back of the head, the spine, the backs of the legs, and out and away from the heels. Continue this breath visualization for 3 minutes.
Next, sit on the floor. Bring the right foot in toward the groin, allowing the bent right knee to rest on the ground. Bend the left leg, so that the left foot lies next to the left hip on the ground. (Feel free to use whatever props you need to sit upright, and to let the bent knees rest comfortably on the floor.) Now, slowly lean to the left, keeping the knees and hips on the ground. Use your left hand for support; the right arm rests agains the body. Breathe deeply as you settle into this deep opening for the waist and intercostal regions of the ribcage.
Remain here for a full minute, then gently come upright. Extend the legs straight out in front of you, again using any props to help you sit comfortably. With your left thumb, close the left nostril. Breathe in and out through the right nostril for 12 full breaths.
Now, repeat the stretch on the other side: The left foot snuggles into the groin, and the right foot lies next to the right hip. Lean to the right, beginning to open the left side body. After 1 minute, rise up. With the legs straight out in front, close the right nostril with the right thumb. Complete 12 full rounds of left-nostril breathing.
Finally, sit on your heels as if preparing to enter Baby Pose. Widen your knees as much as possible, so that you can bring your torso down to rest between the legs: This is Wide-Leg Baby Pose, which allows the abdomen to relax. Place your head on the floor or a block, and let the arms rest on the floor by your legs. Then, place the back of one hand on your lower back; the other hand rests palm up in the palm of the first hand. Allow your elbows to drip and drape down toward the floor.
In this deep, expanded version of Baby Pose, breathe in steadily and completely through the nose; exhale through the mouth, allowing yourself to make any sighing, groaning, or guttural sound that comes naturally. Continue to breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth with sound for 3 minutes. Your sounding may change with each breath; you may find that sometimes you naturally extend the tongue, or purse the lips upon exhale. Toward the end of the 3 minutes, you may emit only a soft sigh, or perhaps a barely discernible whisper of breath.
When you are ready, slowly bring your knees together as you roll up out of Baby Pose. Help yourself to lie down onto your back for several minutes of svasana, allowing the breath to find its own relaxed rhythm.