Tuesday, October 16, 2007

just breathe

Breath control, or pranayama, is such an important focus in yoga. In a yoga class, or even in a yoga instructional DVD, you'll hear the instructor say "find your breath," "even out your breath", "move with the breath," "breathe into your abdomen" and so forth. Breath awareness and control has a whole lot of benefits, besides the obvious fact that we can't do without breathing. But how often do we really pay attention to it?

Physically, abdominal breathing forces air slowly into the base of the lungs. This, in turn, stretches the diaphragm, which sits at the base of the lungs. There are nerves attached to the diaphragm that trigger the body's natural relaxation response. Isn't the human body amazing?

But enough of the anatomy lesson for now. Paying attention to your breathing is such a great way to develop self-awareness and techniques for stress relief. The best part is, you can do it anytime, you don't need expensive equipment, and even if you can only carve out 5 or 10 minutes out of your day, that's a great way to start! While driving, waiting in line, or when an experience triggers an angry reaction... all of these are opportunities to ask yourself, how am I breathing right now? Is my breathing choppy? Am I breathing only through the upper part of the chest or all the way into the lungs and abdomen? Are my shoulders hunched, or are they relaxed away from my ears?

If you can, sit down and close your eyes for a moment... then just watch and observe the breath. You don't have to make efforts to control it yet. Just observe. And then start to consciously breathe in through your nostrils, feeling the collarbones expand and the chest rise, feeling the abdomen expand. Then exhale, letting your abdomen gently contract. If you want to, you can even place your hands on your ribcage to help you become aware of these movements. (If you've ever watched how a baby breathes while sleeping, you'll know what I mean.) Do this as many times as you need to... and enjoy the breath.

On the more spiritual side, you can even think of a word or thought that means something to you... whether it's peace, joy, love, or whatever you find meaningful in that particular moment. You can inhale and think of the word "peace", and then exhale, "love". Remember that whatever you concentrate on expands... whatever you focus your mind on has power. This is also a great way to start meditating -- focusing the mind on breathing and thoughts such as those mentioned (or whatever thought/ideal is important to you) can help drown out external distractions. And don't worry if you get distracted from time to time... that is why it is called a yoga practice or a meditation practice. And again, even if you can only find 5 or 10 minutes out of your day to sit and quiet the mind, you are practicing yoga! Yoga is not just about whether you can twist your body into a pretzel.

I found this poem on a poster at my yoga instructor's studio. It really speaks to me about setting a personal intention for my yoga practice, and I just had to jot it down and share it here.

Breathing in, I feel gratitude;
breathing out I give thanks.
Breathing in, I invite kindness;
breathing out I am kind.
Breathing in I feel loved;
breathing out I offer love.
Breathing in I know compassion;
breathing out I am compassion.
Breathing in I feel joy;
breathing out I celebrate.
Breathing in I am still;
breathing out I am at peace.

photo taken by Jen, summer 2006, Eden Park, Cincinnati

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