Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How to Breathe

My first yoga class was 8 years ago, in a small, sweltering 90 degree room next to a busy train station where sweat clung from the walls like morning dew. Men in speedos and women in sports bras and spandex shorts (with little else) filled the room, standing on multicolored mats as we all stared into the steamy mirrors at our own reflections. I felt awkward and out of place in my cotton tee shirt and gym shorts. I was hot, nervous, uncomfortable and could feel the warmth in my skin rising to the surface trying to escape. I wanted nothing more than to run out of the room and drink in the cool air of the lobby, but I was determined to make it through the entire length of the class, even if I had to – at the advice of the instructor – fold into child’s pose several times. My former lacrosse coach had just recently opened a Bikram yoga studio near my house and offered me and my high school teammates a free trial week of classes. My friend and I decided to do it together and what ensued was one of the most deeply influential experiences of my life and began a lifelong love of yoga. Despite my almost constant discomfort and awkwardness I left the class that night feeling widened – more aware of the crisp November air, and refreshed in a new way, as though I had been deeply cleansed.

The very first thing we learned in that class was, very simply, how to breathe. It sounds so artless, doesn't it? Breathing, like many other functions of the body (such as the heart pumping blood into the veins) is something that we unconsciously do without any mental effort at all. We just breathe. However, unlike the heart, breathing is something that we can also consciously control. When we focus our mind energy on breathing and where the breath physically is moving in the body, the result can be spiritually, mentally, energetically and emotionally transformative.

The breathing exercise that we did was called “pranayama.” Prana is the Sanskrit word for breath or life energy while yama means control; therefore, pranayama means breath control. Having suffered from rather severe asthma throughout my life, conscious breathing (in conjunction with the simple stretches around the neck/upper back/lung and shoulder area) felt like I was truly breathing for the first time.  Since that class I have been on a path to pay closer attention to my internal awareness of my body. I have studied Bikram, Hatha, and Classical yoga as well as various forms of meditation and without fail, they consistently lead me back to my breath practice and to conscious breathing techniques. Throughout my studying and my journey into my own breath, the single most important thing I have learned is this: begin with the body. In order to breath consciously, you must first become aware of your body in space and its posture or asana. Let’s take for example how you are sitting as you read this right now. Without changing anything, just notice what I call the “three H’s” – heels, hips, heart. Where are your heels and feet? Where are your hips and sits-bones? Where is your heart and chest? Where are all of these in relation to one another? Next, where is the breath? Is it in your stomach, upper chest, nose? Where do you feel it?

If you are sitting in a chair, first place your feet evenly on the ground. Feel all parts of your feet resting. Now, pay attention to your hips and sits-bones (they are the bones underneath your tush!) Is your upper body leaning forward over your hips, or leaning back against something behind you? Try to feel both sits-bones resting evenly on the chair or floor beneath you. Then try to “hover” or  balance your upper body on top of your hips. Automatically your heart and chest area should “lift” a few inches, expanding your rib cage and opening your whole stomach area. Can you feel how those small changes in awareness create more space in your body for the breath to move?  If so, great. If not, great. The point is to start being aware of your body in space and to start inhabiting it from the inside out, instead of the outside in.

There are many different ways to focus on your breathing, but a nice place to start is with the "three part breath.” Start by feeling the breath fill the belly like you are inflating a balloon, then move the breath up into to the lower lungs which will lightly expand the rib cage in all directions and finally lead the breath up into the upper lungs, clavicle or upper chest region. Be kind to yourself and try not to breath in too much or too little at once – be aware of whatever amount is right for you at this moment. When you exhale, release the breath gently from the clavicle and upper chest regions, the upper lungs, lower lungs and belly, lightly pulling the belly button back into the spine and engaging the teeny-tiny muscles below the belly. Another nice technique is to try and make the inhale and exhale “equal” which simply means making both the inhale and exhale last the same amount of time, roughly 5-8 seconds when you are first starting and eventually longer with more practice.

Breathing slowly and consciously has an immediately relaxing effect on the body and mind. In yoga they call the breath the “bridge” from the body to the mind because it connects the often disparate entities of our thinking brain and our sensory body into one whole being. When you deepen, still and slow the breathing, you are calming and massaging all of the thousands of nerve endings that reside in the intestines, the lungs and the tissues of the heart and chest. You might even notice that like a domino effect, the thinking mind starts to relax its grip as well, and you may notice the thoughts that usually race through the mind begin to slow down. The thoughts do not and will not “disappear” because that is the mind’s job (to think!), but the space between thoughts might expand. You might notice, perhaps, that there is more (so much more!) to you than your thinking mind and mental thoughts.

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