Wellness Challenge 2013 Week 5: Breathe
Breathing is the only vital function in our entire body that is both automatic, yet still has the ability to be controlled. No matter how much we try, we can never control our heart – we can change how fast it beats, but we can’t stop it for a second and then turn it back on. Breathing, on the other hand, happens automatically without our thinking too much about it, but when we put our mind to it we can change how shallow or deep we breathe, how many breaths we take per minute and we can even restrict our breath. Changing our breathing patterns directly affects our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, giving us the ability to control and condition our stress response.
Much of yoga these days is considered nothing more than a glorified workout. Studios abound touting the next weight loss sensation – a series of yoga poses combined with weight lifting exercises, cardio bursts and a few stretches all in the confines of a 100 degree room to make you sweat and feel like you’re doing more work, and thus burning more calories, than you actually are. Don’t get me wrong, I love this style of yoga – it speaks to my athletic and competitive side, but it’s also not yoga without an emphasis on breath.
It’s the breathwork that makes you feel so good at the end of class, not the postures in and of themselves. It’s the breathwork that makes yoga yoga – otherwise it would just be a workout.
It was my goal to breathe in the fifth week of my 2013 Wellness Challenge. Not just during yoga, but during the everyday situations in my life when I noticed my breathing became restricted or shallow. Science has proven that exhaling for a longer count than your inhale will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system causing the brain to release chemicals to counteract excess cortisol, the stress-inducing chemical, in your system.
There were many moments when I became aware how restricted my breath was, especially as I traveled to high altitude, participated in very cold-weather athletic pursuits and got over a cold/flu.
I used my breath to help calm me down when I had trouble sleeping, counting my inhales and exhales to sharpen my focus and concentration rather than counting sheep.
I used my breath when it was hard to breathe and I felt suffocated by dry air. It’s when you notice you’re not breathing that it’s important to start; it’s also the hardest time to begin.
I remember when I was little and I was just discovering my ability to manually control my breathing. Every time I concentrated on the act of breathing, I would get all panicky that I couldn’t breathe – like I was going to do something wrong and cause myself to stop breathing altogether. It is a great responsibility to control a vital function in your living body, but it’s also a miracle and a gift to use wisely.
It was particularly painful to breathe deeply and freely when I was riding a chair lift in 8- degree weather with a negative wind chill (first-world problems, I know). The body automatically hunches over and muscles start to contract to keep you warm. You also hold your breath, whether you know it or not, as if you’re trying to hold in all the warm air you’ve got. I’m also the type of person who tenses up when I don’t feel well and found myself doing just that when suffering from indigestion after a large, heavy meal.
Most of all breathing deeply helped me feel more free. The expansiveness of breathing helps you achieve space within and without your body you didn’t know existed until you’ve felt it. There was one moment as I was snowboarding when I zipped around a curve that opened up to a vast, picturesque vista of majestic mountains and a rising sun. The light illuminated the valley and I experienced a moment of true awe. The typical description of such events is that the moment took my breath away, but I didn’t feel that. Instead, I gasped so deep as I partook of nature’s natural beauty that the air filled my lungs and body to a fullness I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Instead of moment’s like this taking your breath away, I think instead they give us more breath than we’ve ever had – we feel an expansiveness we can’t explain and so we think our breath is gone, when really it has pervaded every living cell of our body.
My concentration on breath helped me curtail stressful situations that otherwise would have taken me off track. My productivity, creativity and energy all benefitted from a concentration on breathing as I was able to shortcut stress-induced blow-ups and resulting non-productive fretting.
Breathing can be applied to so many of the stressful situations in our lives. Once we master the awareness and correct application of breathing, you’ll see your life change for the better.
This short video shows some breathing exercises you can use for different situations in your busy, more stressful moments of life.
Tell me in the comments below when you are feeling the most stressed and could use some of these breathing exercises.