Befriend your Breath

We all enjoy a party from time to time but imagine one from which there is no escape! For many, modern living has become like a nonstop party. In our waking hours there is no relief from the sensory onslaught of relentless noise and chatter coming from either our own minds, or from the world around us.

The stress response that served our ancestors so well in times of danger has gone berserk. We are enmeshed in high alert situations from which we can neither fight nor flee. Is it any wonder that our body reacts to this level of agitation with stress related disease of one kind or another?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that in order to get the best out of living in the high tech, high achievement, mansion of modern life we have to counteract the effects of excessive stress by creating for ourselves some place of refuge-that place of refuge can be as simple as a practice of deep conscious breathing.

It is well known that deepening your breathing has an instant calming effect on your the mind and emotions. In slowing down your breathing you are consciously short circuiting the stress response by giving your brain the message that all is well and that the body can return to normal functioning, for a little while anyway.

On the whole, Westerners are very bad breathers. We underestimate and underuse the most essential ingredient of what it means to be alive. We have much to learn from Eastern traditions on the healing and rejuvenating power of the breath. Their understanding goes well beyond our Western perception of breathing as a means of supplying the body with oxygen.

Mastery of the breath is seen as the key to controlling the life force energy in the body . Accessing and balancing this energy, (known as prana in yoga, qi or chi in china, ki in Japan) is viewed as being essential to good health and well being . It is also the gateway to higher levels of consciousness.

This vital energy flows in channels ( meridians) throughout the body. A deep conscious breathing practice enhances the flow and can even release blockages in those channels. It acts rather like a self administered acupuncture treatment.

There are lots of ways in which you can play with the power of the breath, For example visualizing it as an energy akin to light which you can move around the body amplifying its healing effects. Feeling the stillness between the inhalation and exhalation can be used to bring about a profound sense of letting go.

Using the exhalation to release tension in your body is also a common practice. Gentle sustained focus on your breathing can take you out of normal mental consciousness into more expanded states of being. In other words, conscious breathing is a form of meditation.

The yogic ability to affect physical processes in the body through breath control and concentrated inner focus, has been well documented. Mastery of the emotions is also achieved through the control of prana. The ability to hold the breath either in or out is critical to the mastery of energy exchanges within the body. It is said, that a yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths.

Returning to our Western understanding, the lungs are not muscles. They only expand when given the space to do so through the movement of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles of the ribcage. It makes good sense to deliberately exercise these muscles from time to time. They will then work more efficiently in your natural ( unconscious) breathing. Deliberate expansion and contraction of the ribcage as you focus your awareness on your inhalation and exhalation is all that is needed, and it can be done with great ease throughout your day.

So, next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, don’t grit your teeth and tighten your grip on the steering wheel, breathe deeply. Next time you find yourself lying in bed unable to sleep, switch onto your deep conscious breathing. Even if it doesn’t put you to sleep it will make you feel better and help to take your mind off the anxieties that may be keeping you awake.

It is a common misconception to believe that we need a certain level of stress in our lives in order to feel motivated to do anything. This is simply not the case. The stress response is always debilitating. Our creativity and efficiency flourishes when our bodies are enjoying the polar opposite of the stress response – the relaxation response. And the good news is that once you move into it, relaxation is a state of being that reinforces itself by flooding the brain with chemicals that induce a natural high( endorphins).

One of the great joys of yoga teaching for me has been the sharing of some of the basic yogic breathing practices that have done so much for my own health and well being. Students never fail to appreciate how much better they feel after them and very often question why they are not taught in every primary school.