Wednesday, March 23, 2011
To watch an infant sleep is to witness one of the most deeply peaceful processes. With every soft rise and fall of the baby's small belly, a natural expansion and contraction occurs that seems effortless, even archetypal.
It's easy to feel envy at such a full state of mental and physical relaxation. And though we were all brought into the world in the same way—breathing as nature intended—our culture quickly conditions us to become shallow, upper chest breathers. Many of us have been doing it incorrectly almost our entire lives.
Breath is the foundation of life; we would cease to exist if not for this vital function. But it's also more than just corporal utility. World cultures have recognized the fundamental connection between breath and the soul for centuries. Whether in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Hawaiian, Chinese or Japanese, the terms for breath—prana, pneuma, spiritus, ha, qi and ki—are synonymous with the essence of our spirit.
Each of these cultures has historically placed great importance on breath work (the focused study and conscious altering of our breath) as the key to achieving physical, mental and spiritual wellness. Practitioners have developed and used various techniques and exercises for thousands of years to help us realize greater balance through the restoration of proper diaphragmatic breathing.
We're taught from a young age to suck in our bellies and keep everything "tight," and because we are also a forward-moving, future-oriented society that exists in a constant state of stress and anxiety, we literally "forget" sometimes to breathe at all. Our breath is just not something we pay attention to or consciously work toward improving.
As a result, a large portion of the population breathes shallowly in the upper chest (rather than with the diaphragm) using only a fraction of lung capacity, which restricts the level of oxygen intake we require for optimal health. Over the course of a lifetime, shallow breathing puts one at risk for a number of health complications, like heart disease and chronic fatigue, as well as digestive, gynecological and sleep disorders.
It would seem then of utmost importance that we focus more on our breath, but few of us do. Many individuals don't reconnect with their breath until they engage in an activity that demands they do so. Singers, athletes and those practicing various forms of meditation must all learn how to discipline their breath to perform effectively.
It wasn't until I took my first yoga class five years ago that I was exposed to the concept of Pranayama (Sanskrit for "control of force"), one of the eight main tenets of yogic thought, which aims to tame negative and restless energy in the body and mind through deep, systematic, cleansing breaths. The instructor had us participate in a short exercise to determine whether we were chest or abdominal breathers. Lying on the floor, she asked us to take several deep breaths without asking ourselves whether we were "right" or "wrong."
Then she asked us to observe what we saw and felt happening, paying particular attention to our chest, abdomen and shoulders. I noticed right away that my chest puffed out, my shoulders raised an inch, and my stomach flattened with each inhalation—all signs I was using only the upper portion of my lungs to breathe.
When you engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing, the abdominal muscles relax as you inhale, while the diaphragm contracts and moves down—giving one's abdomen the appearance of "filling up." The movement of the diaphragm allows the lungs to fill with oxygen. During exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes again and abdominal muscles contract, giving our abdomen the appearance of "falling."
When you breathe properly, you'll almost certainly improve concentration and relax your mind. But doing so also benefits your body in many crucial ways, including detoxifying the organs, increasing blood flow and peristalsis (systematic muscular contractions) of the intestines, as well as increased oxygen supply to the brain and muscles.
Various techniques and exercises exist to aid us to control our breath, purify our bodies and clear our minds so that we remain more balanced. Among some of the most long-standing are pranayama and qigong. Unlike other forms—such as anapanasati, the fundamental form practiced by the Buddha that asks individuals to simply pay mindful attention to their breath—pranayama and qigong specifically train individuals to discipline their breath.
When practiced on a daily basis, meditative breathing has the ability to change one's relationship with his or her thoughts in a profound way, helping to dispel negative energy, promote the flow of good energy and keep restlessness at bay. Take time now to reconnect with this vital force, and you may just find that your spirit comes alive.
Try This At Home
Here's a simple breathing exercise you can feel comfortable trying at home without supervision. If you're interested in trying other, more intense forms of breath control, it's advisable to first consult a physician and to work with a trained instructor. Practice this exercise for 15 minutes, once or twice a day:
• Begin by gently pushing the abdomen forward as you breathe in.
• Push the ribs sideways while continuing the intake. Your abdomen will automatically move slightly inward.
• Lift your chest and collarbone up as you keep breathing in.
• This should be done in one continuous motion with each step flowing smoothly into the next. Avoid any jerky movements or using force.
• Allow your collarbone, chest and ribs to relax. The air in your lungs will automatically be expelled.
• Once you have released all of the air, gently pull the abdomen in slightly to expel any remaining air in the lungs.
• Exhaling is more passive, except during the second stage when you slightly pull in the abdomen.
Fantastic and I am not even finished with the article! The first two paragraphs are profound and certainly true. As an adult I often find myself having to remind myself to breathe properly to reduce tension and stress. Gotta finish the read!