I. Don’t. Breathe.
When I am trying to suck in my stomach to look skinnier. When I am immersed in listening to the words of another. When I am trying to formulate a well thought out answer to a question. When I am attempting to quell a rising wave of anger. When I am deep in concentration. And these are just some of the times I consciously know that I do it. Am I alone in this? I do not believe so. Well, maybe in the personal reasons of why, but I believe the dysfunction of breath is a common phenomenon. As I have started to research, learn, and explore more the patterns of my own inhales and exhales, I have been reminded of their immense power. It is literally our life force, but how many times a day do you and I take it for granted or do not even give it a second thought?
As I am being called to different destinations along my journey right now, I have begun work on my 500 hour training, and it was there recently in a small town in Pennsylvania that I was asked to simply lie on my belly and breathe and watch. Multiple times a day, over and over again, so much so that at times I wanted to run out of the room and scream. Seems a bit dramatic, right? I wasn’t being asked to undertake some hugely challenging physical feat. I was being asked something far more challenging in my opinion. I was being asked to explore and confront deep reactionary patterns that I was again realizing were no longer serving me and had probably never been healthy. As a student, I know how hard the explorations that are being asked of you can be. As a teacher and student, I know how mind blowing the awareness can be that comes from those same explorations if you are willing to machete your path so that it starts to become clearer as you forge ahead. Later on, I will give one breath awareness and strengthening exercise I have come to love and appreciate. It is quite powerful in its simplicity. Until then, take a pause, in your reading, not your breath and watch yours. Was it the rise or fall of the belly or chest or ribs you noticed most? Was it the inhale that was smoother to take in or the exhale that was easier to let go? Were they even? Was there a struggle for one? Did the rhythm of inhales and exhales ever pause unnecessarily? What might those answers mean?
Even more recently, I laid on my side on a massage table, riding the waves of sobs that battered my psyche like the waves of a stormy sea battering the hull of a ship. I had not been consistent enough with my breath work since I left training and the universe was showing me once again how important it was, how needed it was. Has that happened to you before? The same lesson showing up again and again cloaked in just slightly different garb to see if you learn from it this time. Well, for me, this time it was dressed in the strong hands of a body worker. The universe had decided it was going to beat it out of me or into me depending on how you look at it. As he dug deep into knot after knot, hammered into tight muscle after tight muscle, broke into a lifetime web of gripping and holding it was as if I was a guard of Castle Black (if they had allowed women) watching the White Walkers batter the castle door, knowing that something life changing was about to happen and to resist would be futile. Of course, I would not be doomed to a horrendous immortality, but graced with visions of my own wisdom that I had been blind to see if willing to surrender. I began to see pictures of things in my past I thought I was finally over, but obviously I had not been able to let go of. So much holding, gripping, tightness. Me as a little girl praying for a dad that would just give me one hug or say I love you. Me as the shy, only child thinking I had to figure out everything on my own, handle it on my own. Me as the insecure teenager and college student hiding under a shield of bitchiness creating a mask of false confidence. Me as a women sucking in my gut to look skinnier and in my head more attractive thinking that was all I had to offer. As my body and breath seized up against his hands, a pattern of unconscious defense I had adopted, I was confronted with two paths. I could be my same stubborn self, continue to battle once more against this same fight or I could try something different, give in, trust and surrender. As the tears came, they became the waves that broke down the dam holding back my shame and pain. As the breath came, it became the tool of release. My inhales became fuller. My exhales became smoother, less raw and jagged. Oxygen is pulled in as we inhale and with that we are nourished from the universe. Carbon dioxide is released as we exhale, we let go of waste and cleanse the body. So, I invite you to take another pause and watch your breath without need to change. What are your inhales and exhales saying about you? Your patterns? Your easier ability to either nourish or cleanse yourself?
So, for former students, current, and future, these are just a few of the reasons why I preach the power of the breath. Why I harp on the importance of it. Why I believe it is possibly the most important part of our practice. It is the gateway. Our first gasping one is the gateway to life in this body. Our last gasping one is our gateway to whatever lies next after this body. And all the in betweens, they are our gateways, our clues, to discovering more about ourselves, to getting to know ourselves, and to healing ourselves.
How can you cultivate more awareness of your patterns of inhales and exhales and more? I would like to share with you a fairly simple technique I think can be really profound. It is a way of strengthening the diaphragm, the muscle and tendon system that is our primary tool of breath. Diaphragmatic breathing can take us into a pattern of breathing that shifts us out of our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight and all the chemicals that come along for the ride) and into our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Far too often we hang out in the stressful world of the sympathetic nervous system needlessly. In this technique you can watch your breath, the fullness, the depth, the continuity, the evenness. From that knowledge, what doors of wisdom open up to you? It can also allow you to start to change your pattern a breath into a healthier one if needed which can translate to the physical body as well.
1. Lie on your belly in crocodile pose (Makarasana).
a. Your legs will be about shoulder width apart and at first try turning your toes out away from one another, heels in, setting the femur bones into a bit of external rotation. If this is any way uncomfortable, adjust the positioning of toes in a way that will allow you to be comfortable.
b. Cross your arms, hands placed on opposite elbows, allowing the shoulders and chest to be lifted off the floor a bit. Allow your forehead to relax on your forearms. If this is any way uncomfortable, trying rolling a blanket into a log. Form a horseshoe shape and place the log under you to support underneath the fronts of your shoulders, your chest, the sides of the blanket hugging the sides of your torso. Relax the forehead on a small pillow or another blanket and allow the arms to come out to the sides from the shoulders with elbows bent like cactus arms or field goal posts.
2. Allow the belly to relax on the floor, and begin to breath in and out through your nose and notice the work of the diaphragm. As it contracts, the lungs fill with air, the belly expands into the floor into resistance and the breath expands into the back and ribs. As it relaxes, the lungs expel air and the belly retracts and the back and ribs sink.
3. Allow the rest of the body to relax and sink into the support of the floor.
4. Allow the breath to become deeper, smoother, even out, stay continuous and become quiet.
5. Carve out 10 minutes every day if you can or a however often you can spare to practice this technique of diaphragmatically breathing and of breath awareness. See what lessons lie in the awareness of breath and body for you.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments and insights. Let me know if you have any questions about the breathing technique. Thank you sharing your time with me.
Photo by Kristina Kashtanova http://www.icreatelife.photography/