What happens if you devote time to your day to just breathe?
I decided to challenge myself to 10 minutes of dedicated breathwork every morning for 10 days. For yogis who already have a breathwork practice, this may sound like no big deal. Some people probably find it easy to sink into a deep pranayama practice surrounded by 20 other practitioners in a mountaintop class at a Wanderlust Festival. I, on the other hand, would be 100 percent distracted by the warmth of the sun, the buzz of the insects, the softness of the grass, and all the new friends sitting next to me that I made at the Silent Disco last night. That’s to say, for me, sticking to a breathwork routine has always felt a little bit like herding cats. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost a decade, and although I teach asana and breathwork, I have a harder time integrating the second into my personal yoga practice.
Like the physical poses, pranayama teaches us to focus on one singular task—ultimately preparing our minds for more fruitful meditation. But there are so many other benefits of breathwork, from the straightforward biological (infuses the blood with fresh oxygen) to the more spiritual (cleanses our nadis, or energetic pathways). A few minutes of focused effort has immeasurable returns. I had to at least try.
Note: I did 10 days. Even just trying 2–4 days—the length of a Wanderlust Festival—of consistent practice could help you to establish a routine and reap the benefits.
Day 1: Monday
I don’t want to be too hard on myself, but… epic fail? I mean, stunningly epic fail. I’m currently transitioning out of a job that requires me to be out the door by 5 a.m. I set my alarm for 4, but… snooze. I told myself I’d do some kapalabhati on the commute there, to fire myself up for the day, but when I turned on my car, the radio dial was set to Ariana Grande, and I jammed out the whole drive. As I turned up the volume, I promised myself I would start… tomorrow.
Sigh. Like I said: Herding cats.
Day 2: Tuesday
Hello, 4 a.m. You’re so dark and chilly. I shuffled out of bed on time today and lit a stick of incense and oil-pulled before settling onto a yoga blanket with a cozy sweater wrapped around me. I thought about yesterday’s demerits, and decided I would keep things simple: I would focus only on nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing. It’s a calming, balancing breath that’s pleasant to do. If I avoid variables, I think my chances at sticking to this routine will be much better.
After I finished (I had set a gentle alarm on my phone), I did some light stretching and made tea while I read my tarot cards for the day. I feel so accomplished! I feel so proud of myself! I feel like I could do this again tomorrow!
Day 3: Wednesday
Apparently my morning spiritual time has inspired another member of my household: My dog. He likes to be close by, and he’s decided that my pranayama practice is the perfect opportunity for some bone-chomping quality time. As soon as I settle in, he runs to grab his bone and sits at my feet, gnawing away. It’s sweet, but the constant munching and slurping sounds have proven to be a little, uh, distracting.
Although — isn’t that the point of this practice? To learn how to go within, even when the external world feels distracting and challenging?
Day 4: Thursday
I attempted to drown out my pupper’s playtime with a recording of Om chanting. Not my greatest idea: It just served to give me another noise to tune out as I inhaled and exhaled. Still, I’ve gotta say: Even amid the distractions and imperfections of this experiment, I’m enjoying the time spent. I’m glad I’m doing it. It feels good, and it might even feel… sustainable?
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. How about I just focus on making it through the next six days. Stay in the present, etc., etc.
Day 5: Friday
I realized something as I lit my incense this morning and prepared for practice: I am so there for those 10 minutes when I’m actually doing my breathwork, but as soon as I walk away from my altar, I completely forget about it. Of course, I’m still breathing throughout the day—but not consciously, or thoughtfully. It’s either all (incredibly focused nadi shodhana) or nothing (distracted, shallow chest breathing). Hmmm…
Day 6: Saturday
In addition to my nadi shodhana, I encouraged myself to bring some ujjayi breath to my day job. Saturdays are typically quite busy at work, and they can feel stressful. As I moved throughout the tasks of the day, I tried to be mindful of how I was breathing. The cooling ocean sound of ujjayi did wonders—even if it only seemed like a mental adjustment. This particular breath is so linked in my muscle memory to yoga class, and moving through asana, that I felt like I was on my mat in a sacred space, instead of hustling through a busy café.
Day 7: Sunday
Today’s my favorite day to teach yoga. I guide a slow flow and restorative class, which provides such a beautiful opportunity to help my students explore their pranayama practice. I offered them a similar medicine to the one I’ve been taking: 5 minutes of nadi shodhana (I completed my ‘dosage’ earlier in the morning). As I held space for my students to complete the practice, I sensed some agitation, shuffling, and hurried energy in the room. Breathwork can feel itchy and uncomfortable, because it’s not a part of the yoga practice our society typically highlights. The more exposure we have to it, the more familiar and safe it will feel within our bodies and minds. I make a mental note to discuss this with my students… and maybe to write a sticky note for myself.
Day 8: Monday
Whoa! One whole week! I celebrate by tacking five minutes of meditation onto today’s pranayama. I do this not just to show off to myself (although, a little), but because I’ve noticed a tendency for my mind to wander when I’m doing breathwork. I’m a multitasker to a fault, so the fact that I’m occupied with a job (breathwork) makes me feel like I need to do something else (in this case, think about to-do lists, my crush, and random embarrassing things I did seven years ago). There’s something about the strict stillness of meditation that makes it easier for me to hone in the monkey mind. Why is it so hard for me to “just” breathe?
Day 9: Tuesday
In an effort to stop all the chatter in my brain, I really attempted to bring some solid mindfulness to this morning’s pranayama practice. And you know what? It worked. I noticed how the air felt cool as I inhaled it through one nostril. I enjoyed the cooling sensation of the air leaving my body. I noticed that I enjoyed the exhalation much more—it felt like a release for my whole body, while I clenched and tightened on the inhale. I caught myself slouching and straightened my spine, brought my shoulder blades together and my chest forward. I softened at the feeling of my thumb and index finger on my nose with each round. It felt good to both touch and receive touch. I wasn’t just breathing, I was breathing well.
Day 10: Wednesday
It’s the last day of my challenge, and after my rocky start I’m feeling great. Pranayama is so different than asana for me, but the more I think about it, the more I understand: That’s a good thing. I used to avoid pranayama because it didn’t feel natural or fluid in my body. Practicing the poses was familiar and comfortable, so I always chose asana to the exclusion of everything else.
But doing something I already do well isn’t mastery—it’s laziness and stagnation. In life and in yoga (which, let’s be honest: yoga is actually just life), it’s a positive thing to feel weird and awkward. It means we’re working. It means we’re changing. It means we’re growing.
I also know that trying to do everything all at once sometimes sets us up for failure, as we struggle to maintain it all. So instead of saying “I’m now going to master pranayama,” I’ll just close with this intention: 10 more days. I can do this. How about you?
Rochelle Bilow is a yoga teacher and writer based in upstate New York, where she works as the studio manager at Vyana Yoga. Connect with her on social @RochelleBilow for all things yoga and ayurveda—and all the corgi pictures you can handle.