Yoga is for everyone!
Breathing Techniques in Yoga: Breath Awareness
In my previous post I talked about how overbreathing and Sympathetic response of our nervous system create health problems once they become habitual. The practice of Yoga is centered around the breath, and it is the aspect that sets it apart from other types of "exercise". We begin every class with Breath Awareness.
Breath Awareness is easy to do and requires simply to pay attention to the breath as it comes and goes. It is a great place to start, and the funny thing is that as soon as you start paying attention to your breath, it, like a naughty child that has been caught in a transgression, begins to behave better almost immediately. That is the awesome power of awareness - where the mind goes, there the Prana goes, and healing begins.
For the most part our problems, pain, and suffering can be addressed through the simple act of paying attention to them. It is quite true what they say: "Recognizing that you have a problem is half the work done of solving it." Or something to that effect. Breath awareness can be done any time, any place, but is especially helpful during the times of stress, distress, or suffering of any kind, as it helps to step back from identifying too closely with the pain and to re-direct attention to something else. And the breath is always there.
The more you practice breath awareness, the easier it will be to use this technique when you need it, which is why we practice it every time in Yoga, when we've intentionally set aside the time to do it. It is akin to having a well-swept path to that "quiet place" that we all have, but some of us allow that path to become forgotten or overgrown with obstacles. Go there often, daily, two-three times a day, by checking in with your breath, and the next time you really need it - voila, the path is clear. So, don't wait until you have a problem in order to practice breath awareness, do it every day, and you will have your skills sharp and ready. Here is what you do:
Sit up with your back straight. Tell yourself: "I am breathing." Notice how the inhale comes in through the nose, travels down the back of the throat into the windpipe and then feel your rib cage expand. Notice how the exhale travels out, how the air is warmer on its way out because your body has heated it up, how your belly pulls in softly as the diaphragm releases. With each inhale say: "I am inhaling." With each exhale say: "I am exhaling." Observe the effects.
Usually the effects don't take long to become noticeable. Your breathing will slow down, especially the exhalation. When you notice this try to lengthen the exhale even more by constricting the epiglottis in the back of the throat a tiny bit, to narrow the passage of air, as if you are saying "ha-a-a", but with your mouth closed. You will hear the texture of your breath. Try to breathe out smoother, releasing the same volume of air every second of your exhale. You will notice your facial muscles relax, your jaw will loosen from its grip, and your head will feel a bit clearer.
If you have a little more time/inclination to go further, you can "play" with the breath by imagining that it can travel to different parts of the body. Of course you cannot send the breath into your lowest abdomen, your lungs simply do not go that far, but you can feel the effect of the breath all the way down to your pelvic floor. As the diaphragm moves down, it puts pressure on the viscera of your belly, which in turn puts pressure on the pelvic floor and you may notice it soften and descend down a tiny bit. It is best to be in a good posture when doing it, so that you can feel this relationship between the diaphragm and the pelvic floor, hence the instruction to straighten up. As you exhale and the diaphragm pulls back underneath the ribs, the viscera is "vacuumed" in with it, and the pelvic floor, too, is pulled along. You will feel a subtle toning "down there."
In a similar manner you can feel the displacement of your internal organs in other places, and you can direct your awareness to your back body, to your kidneys and adrenals back there, to your sides, compare the way the breath moves your lower right ribs and left ribs. Do you notice any difference? Where else do you feel your breath move your body? Do your shoulders move? How far up the chest do you experience this action of the breath? All of this is valuable information that will give you choices.
Choice is the most awesome self-empowerment tool you can use to make yourself feel better. We may not have a choice in every matter, but we can create choices for ourselves where there previously were none and feel tremendous relief, confidence, and joy in making choices.
Choosing to take a breath into your back body, so that your heart center remains relaxed, your shoulders remain relaxed, your inner organs receive a gentle massage is better than any pill you can take - it is free, instant, and does not have any negative side effects. By learning to control breathing musculature we gain a sense of having control over something in our lives, and that can be tremendously healing.
By feeling our body we create a more detailed map of that body within our awareness. We literally can re-wire our nervous system because parts of our brain light up when we physically feel something.
Science calls this process neuroplasticity - the ability of our nervous system to rewire itself based on what we focus our attention on. Once is not enough, though, and the more we focus our awareness on something the more neural connections we lay down, and it is a two-way street. We acquire the ability to receive more information as well, because we become capable of detecting more subtle sensations. Our body map becomes more high resolution, so to speak.
David Perlmutter, MD, who is an internationally recognized board-certified neurologist and the author of books Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment and Better Brain Book, gives a definition of neuroplasticity that pretty much sums up my Liberated Yoga concept:
"Neuroplasiticity provides us with a brain that can adapt not only to changes inflicted by damage, but allows adaptation to any and all experiences and changes we may encounter freeing us from merely responding reflexively as a consequence of genetically determined hardwiring."
This gives you the opportunity to detect the smallest changes, shifts, and sensations and receive advanced warning if something feels off. And this, in turn, again gives you more choices - so if after sitting for a while reading this you feel some tension in your shoulders, you are more likely to get up and move about, do some easy stretches, and prevent that tension from becoming a major muscle knot that would take a hour of bodywork by a professional to address.
So, think of daily breath awareness practice as flossing. Twice a day, every day, to prevent major build-up of mental, emotional, and toxic plaque, so that you don't need a root canal once a month. Not to mention than when Life happens and the sky falls, you will be ready to take that long exhale OUT.
I hope this blog will motivate you to get started or to continue with Yoga and breathing, and to stay tuned to future posts on other type of breathing techniques. Meanwhile, check out this article on Neuroplasticilty, mirror neurons, and empathy.