“It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” –Bob Dylan

Often times while I am giving a Pilates session or teaching a yoga class, I will ask what is meant to be the rhetorical question, “are you breathing?” More often than not, I am met with a somewhat indignant tone and response that more or less says “I’m still alive so of course I am”. Yes, breathing is an automatic function, but so are things like sleep, and digestion. All of the above can be affected negatively by the poor lifestyle choices and chronic stress that are so present in our culture. It’s not that unusual for those things to get so out of balance that we resort to using drugs to regulate them, or have to engage in some sort of therapeutic approach to get our bodies to relearn what they once already knew. I guess what I should be asking is, are you breathing optimally? Again, if I am asking that question in the first place, the answer is no. You see, the amount of breath and the quality of breath that is needed to simply sustain life comes no where near the amount and quality of breath that has positive effects on our nervous system, efficiently rids the body of toxins, releases tension, and overall nourishes our body and mind.

Here I will outline some of the reasons why our breath deviates from its most optimal rhythm, point out the healing benefits of regulating our breath, and lastly offer you some pointers on how to start bringing better breathing practices into your everyday life.

One reason that our breath becomes, short, shallow, and less than optimal is simply that its too fast.. Most of us nowadays are doing everything too fast! If you are not able to slow down enough to even tap into even become aware of the breath, the rest of these tips will be unattainable. So start there, ditch your old habitual tendency to do too much too fast, and prepare to slow down and take a look inward.

The second reason why breath suffers is poor posture. It doesn’t have any room to move! Picture a body that is hunched over, even to a degree that we consider to be mild like typing on a computer or looking down at our phone to send a text. The ribs practically sit on top of the hips, the collarbone narrows, and the internal organs crown one another leaving no room for the diaphragm to drop down. This leaves only room for a shallow breath pathway into the top chest and throat allowing the air to just trickle into the lungs. Some estimates suggest that on average we only use about 30% of our full lung capacity.bodies_slideshow3

Another major contributor to diminished breath efficiency is the presence of trauma and/or chronic stress. It has been observed that sufferers of trauma breathe shallow quick breaths in and out only through the mouth. The top of the chest fills and empties with air but not the pit of the abdomen as in a deep, conscious breath. The reason is, this breath is tied to the nervous systems “fight or flight response”. This breath is highly functional in short spurts of action such as escaping a predator. Short sporadic uses of that breath that were functional throughout our evolution aren’t necessarily a problem or a builder of a bad habit. The problem arises when we create a life so full of stress, with so little resource to counter that stress that it becomes chronic. The mind is a powerful manipulator, hence why it is important to learn to calm it. Your nervous system is victim to what you perceive to be a stressful situation whether it is indeed actually life threatening or not. Imagine that every time you have a work deadline, have to care for your family, or are stuck in traffic your body behaves as if it were running from a wildebeest. How long might you suppose a body can stay healthy doing that?

So, whether or not you currently train in pranayama or another discipline that emphasizes breath control or not, here are some tips to make conscious breathing more accessible throughout your day.

Lets start by considering the parts that make up a breath cycle. In the yogic tradition the inhalation is to be considered more energizing, and a time to tap into or examine the gross physical body. (Perhaps the way the air feels as is comes in through the nose, or the way it moves and expands our body parts like belly and ribs. The exhalation is to be considered more grounding and cooling, as well as a time to tap into the subtle or energetic body. (For example, how do your emotions shift as you breath deeply, does the mind become more steady, can you feel tension leaving areas where it is usually held?) Additionally, the space that resides between the in and out breaths is also important, and should be given its space and time to complete the cycle. As you practice deep breathing consider these qualities as you inhale, noticing the sensations, observe the qualities of the exhalation. You could even pick a keyword relating to what you feel and use it like a mantra. For example, say to yourself, “energize” as you inhale, and “relax” as you exhale.

Another way to experience awareness of these different parts of the breath cycle is to count the breaths. Start with something manageable that won’t make you feel as though you are laboring too much, like 4 counts to inhale, one count of lightly holding or pausing, and then 4 counts to exhale. You can increase the counts as you wish but I recommend the main focus being able to make the in and out breaths equal in length and quality. Notice how you feel after just a few rounds of this.

If you find trouble remembering to practice breath work or making time to practice breath work, this next tip will be especially helpful. Pick a cue, something environmental that happens throughout the day and usually grabs your attention. This could be the telephone ringing, being stopped at a red light, or waiting in line somewhere. Take that time to bring your attention to the breath and then practice a few conscious breaths. That could amount to 5, 10, 20 times a day you are practicing conscious breathing! It won’t be long before your body adapts and your breath unconsciously deepens.

Try it. You’ll like it.

“Verily, the life breath is the essence of the limbs, yes, life breath is the essence of the limbs. –Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad I. 3. 19.

One Response to “Breath | VIGORANDSAGE”

  1. Ben Balester January 14, 2016 10:03 pm #

    Thank you for the lesson and reminder. We need to remember to be consciously rooted back in being with the breath, as opposed to always being with the busy.

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