I hope you can join me Sunday, November 24th at 12:30pm at Tula for a workshop on the breath. We’ll explore our Dirgha and Ujjayi breathe and play with Kapalbhati and Nadi Shodhana. (Not familiar with those pranayamas? No worry – come and find out! All levels are welcome.)
As I prepare for this workshop, I’ve been thinking about how the quality of our breath impacts the quality of our yoga practice and our entire life. I heard once that part of the reasoning for deep yogic breath comes from the idea that we each have a certain number of breaths in our life and that when we use our deep ujjayi breath (victorious breathing/ocean breath), we slow our breath, literally making our lives longer. This reasoning seems like the kind of story that can be simultaneously factually inaccurate and yet deeply true.
Think about it – when we’re stressed, scared, or nervous, our breathing becomes shallow and ragged. We primarily breathe in our upper chest or under our collarbones. When you’re really stressed it may even feel like you’re breathing into your throat. At the extreme, this is hyperventilating. In times of stress, this breath triggers our sympathetic nervous system – the flight or fight mentality. And that’s a good thing to be able to access – there are times when we need a burst of nervous energy to get a project done on time, or to actually run from a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, many of us operate too often in a stressed out state. We’re plagued by a barrage of emails, meetings, family and work commitments, cell phones that are always vibrating. It doesn’t take a doctor to explain that this way of life is detrimental to our physical health (although plenty have) as well as our emotional well-being.
On the other hand, when we’re relaxed and feel safe, our breathing naturally slows. Think of the deep breath you take when you wake up and realize it’s your day off, when you finish a project at work, or you have an evening to sit on the couch with your partner and a glass of tea or wine . . . or both. And maybe a game of Sequence?
(It’s an exciting game of strategy!)
In relaxed moments, we transition to our parasympathetic nervous system which is characterized by a chance to rest and digest. We breathe into our bellies, which gives our internal organs necessary movement and rejuvenation. This is the time for our bodies to heal themselves, rebuild muscle and tissue that has been stressed or injured, and give our digestive system a chance to do its job.
Luckily, just as our external circumstances shifts our breath, we can shift our circumstances with our breath. Even in (or maybe especially in) moments of stress, by intentionally deepening our breath, we can access a more peaceful, controlled (yet free!) way of being.
It’s no accident that in many world traditions, our belly is considered a sacred or special space. In the west we talk about a “gut feeling” – the idea that our belly can tell us what’s right or true. In Shiatsu (which currently studying at Zen Shiatsu) they refer to the abdominal area as the Hara. According to this tradition, which comes from Japan with Chinese influence, the vital spirit resides in the Hara. There is something transformational about accessing the wisdom of your abdomen. Try it right now. Take 20 seconds to bring your hands to your low belly, close your eyes, and feel your abdomen expand in every direction on your inhale – deflate like a ballon on your exhale.
(Just like Oprah.)
I’m of the opinion that being in your body, loving and respecting your body for all that it is and does for you, is a wonderful radical act. Breathing fully, luxuriously, and experiencing all the ways your breath can impact your physical and emotional well-being is one way to practice self-care.
I hope you can join me on Sunday, November 24th to dive deeper into your breath.