16 Jul “Breathe” A Guest Blog Post by Lisa Myers
Pranayama is a word from the Sanskrit language which means Breath. This comes from prāna which translates into ‘vital life force’ and āyāma which translates into ‘control’. Breath can have many different meanings. Such as the physical act of air being taken into or expelled from the lungs, wind or air, or it can represent the soul/spirit/life force. The Bible tells us that God breathed his breath into Adam, thus giving him life. This tells us that God (Creator) is closer to us than our next breath. The Source of Creation dwells within us, dwells within our breath. We search and search for peace, yet we often forget to look inside of ourselves.
Personally, I had no idea that most people do not know how to properly breathe. It was a foreign concept to me as our breath is a natural phenomenon. We do not need to think about breathing it just happens automatically. Or does it? I ask this question because I have also learned that many people hold their breath unconsciously. Yesterday I met someone who told me while she watches TV, while she is working, and throughout her day she will catch herself gasping for air – realizing she has stopped breathing. So, while our breathe may be a natural phenomenon, not everyone breathes freely. Clearly, it is not as automatic as we think.
I had no idea there were correct and incorrect ways of breathing until Indra’s Grace offered a “pranayama workshop” a few years ago. Honestly, my first thought about a breath workshop was not one of joy but was more like disbelief that this could be useful to me. So, I blew it off. But I could not get the idea of a breath workshop out of my mind. It was haunting me with curiosity so strongly that I paid the enrollment fee and attended. One of the things that I learned was if our inhalations are longer than our exhalations the body feels threatened and releases cortisol along with adrenaline to help us ‘fight or flee’. The body feels safe and less threatened when we can remember to make our exhales longer than our inhales or at least equal.
Little did I know that class would be the best money that I had ever spent. I call these “God moments”. When something weighs so strongly on your mind that you know it must have come from a higher power. I was (and still am sometimes) a high chest breather, meaning I only utilized the top part of my lungs. All the years of band practice when I had originally learned diaphragmatic breathing had long left my memory. After all, I no longer PLAY the clarinet. Did you know that only utilizing the top part of our lungs is a sign that you are stuck in parasympathetic breathing – which is also known as the “fight or flight syndrome”? Neither did I. I thought it was perfectly normal.
During the workshop we learned how to originate our breathe from the lower part of our abdomen and to exhale fully with a steady cadence. Sounds easy unless you are a high chest breather! Once the class halfway mastered diaphragmatic breathing, Sandra had us pull the breath from the abdomen up into our lower to mid ribs. We practiced both techniques for an extended period. Then we were instructed to bring the breath all the way, slowly and steadily, up into the high chest then exhale with a long steady rhythm. This type of breathing puts us in the sympathetic mode, known as “rest and digest.” Little did I know that this would be the beginning of the lessening of my anxiety and depression.
Yes, you heard that correctly. Proper breathing can literally change the nervous system!
I have learned so much about breathing from the pranayama and yoga classes with Indra’s Grace and there is so much more for me to learn. Now I eagerly enroll in every breath workshop offered!
I received my 200-hour yoga teacher training certification from Indra’s Grace in September 2020 and am finding that most of the people I teach do not know how to properly breathe. There are so many types of breath work exercises for different effects in our bodies. Techniques for calming, energizing, enhancing our immune system, aiding to lessen depression and/or anxiety, detoxifying, clearing sinuses, increasing blood flow, enhancing gratitude and more.
A basic breathing technique called Yogic Breath (Long Deep Breathing) can calm the nervous system, remove toxins, increase blood flow and allows for expanding lung capacity. It can be done as follows:
Inhale slowly and deeply for 4 counts and then exhale for 4 counts. Making sure to originate the breath in the low abdomen. Then bring your breath into your ribs to expand them outward slightly and then move the breath to the high chest. Exhaling fully by bringing the naval point to the spine inward and upwards to expel all the air, and built-up carbon dioxide.
Repeat this until you are comfortable and ready to relax deeper. Then inhale for 4 counts (using the above referenced technique), exhale for 6 counts until you are more comfortable and ready to relax deeper. Then, inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 8 counts. You might even master exhaling longer with some practice!
Try setting a timer for 5 maybe 10 minutes while you simply count and breathe. Putting this technique into practice daily will help your body to return to the “rest and digest” response mode. You will begin to relax. The stress will begin to melt away, allowing the body to heal.
When your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale maybe even noticing the nano second when your breath changes from inhalation to exhalation to help relax the body, mind and soul. Counting can be immensely helpful while observing the breath as it helps keep the mind focused and enables us to keep the breath balanced.
Personally, pranayama has been a key factor in allowing me to completely stop taking medication for depression and to greatly reduce my medication for anxiety. I want to shout it out to humanity: we need to learn to properly breath. It will not happen overnight, but it will happen for us all if we commit to a daily practice. In closing I would like to leave you with this quote from a Taoist Text:
“If one’s inhalations and exhalations are not balanced, one loses the harmonious breath energy of heaven and earth. This is how diseases are produced.”