By Shems Heartwell
Published in: Prevent Disease, Tuesday, November 15, 2016
The way you breathe is the way you live. Breathing is absolutely essential to life, but it’s often overlooked as a necessity for good health. Full, free breathing is one of the most powerful keys to enhancing physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
Breathing fully and freely is our birthright. If you watch a baby breathe, you will see the beauty and simplicity of flow in the body. With each inhale, the baby’s belly fills with air like a balloon, the pelvis rocks, the legs open, the chest rises and then falls, like swells across the ocean. This is natural, oceanic full-body breathing. It is the way we were meant to breathe.
Breathing effortlessly, a baby lives fully and freely in the now, in the expansiveness of the moment. There is no past to remember, no future to plan for or worry about. Each breath is a process of receiving from the universe and giving back to it. With each inhale, she receives and takes life in. With each exhale, she lets go and gives back. She is in touch with and part of the essential rhythm of life.
“Full, free breathing is one of the most powerful keys to enhancing physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.”
The baby doesn’t know or do this consciously, but simply experiences an inherent peace, joy, and connectedness with all things. Of course, a baby will also experience needs and be heavily influenced by the environment that she is in. She will have emotional outbursts or cries for attention, but what is important to notice is how easily a baby will settle back into a relaxed state of calm and peace. Much like animals, children have a great capacity for resilience. In one moment they may be screaming and then after a brief reassuring glance or embrace, settle back into a deep peace and calm.
Over time, the child absorbs and accumulates the tensions and stresses of their family and learns behaviors from their environment. As we each experience the joys, challenges, and traumas of life, we begin to anticipate and react from our past experiences of pleasure and pain. Unfortunately, we lose the freedom and expansiveness that were natural at birth. We become afraid of disapproval, punishment, or abandonment. We experience unpleasant feelings that we don’t know how to handle.
As a result, we begin to contract more often or even shut down. We learn to “control” ourselves, to “be good,” to receive positive attention. We sacrifice our desires for the approval of others. To control ourselves in this way, we unconsciously tighten our muscles and restrict our breathing. We discover that the less we breathe, the less we feel–and the easier it is to get through the challenges and difficulties of modern life. Over time, this process develops habitual unconscious reactions that lock up the body and prevent the full expression of both pleasure and pain. The essential flow of life force energy becomes kinked like a hose and every functioning system in the body will eventually degrade faster.
As adults, many people tend to breathe small and shallow, mostly in the chest, with little visible movement. To make matters worse, most people contract and literally stop breathing for short periods during stressful or mentally focused situations. These periods of contraction and breath holding create a low-grade suffocation in the body. Suffocation leads to suffering. The lack of oxygen and increased tension hinders the flow of blood, nutrients, and vital energy.
“When we constrict or stop our breath, we lose touch with what is happening in the present moment.”
When we constrict or stop our breath, we lose touch with what is happening in the present moment–with how magical, pleasurable, and wonderful it is just to be alive. Instead, we focus too much in the head and get stuck in the past and the future. Our minds race with thoughts–worrying, figuring out, and planning. We lose the freedom, joy, and expansiveness that are natural when we are relaxed in our breath and connected to our body awareness.
Miraculously, by directing your consciousness back to your breathing and learning to work with it, you can regain what has been lost. You can learn to let go of patterns of worry and tension, which hold you back, and return to natural, oceanic, full-body breathing. Like a baby, you can experience the full feeling, possibility, and connection of each moment.
The Art of Conscious Breathing
As you become aware of your breath and work with it consciously, you make a direct link to your autonomic nervous system, gaining access to a part of yourself that usually functions outside of conscious awareness.
It is no accident that many meditation techniques are based on breathing. As our breathing gets fuller and deeper, we can feel ourselves softening, opening, getting more spacious inside.
The breath takes us into our very core. There is a reason that in many languages and many sacred texts, the word for breath also means soul or spirit: psyche in Greek, anima in Latin, ruach in Hebrew and the “ha” in aloha means the sacred breath of life within us all, or the spirit of the Creator that breathes life into all living beings and joins us all as one.
As you lengthen and deepen the breath in and out, you can feel a connection between the inside and the outside. Through our breathing, it is possible to feel connected with all living beings. When I first experienced full-body breathing myself, I discovered what true relaxation feels like and a genuine sense of oneness. Before I became a breathing enthusiast, I had little awareness of how much tension there was in my body. When I tried to take a full deep breath, it was actually difficult to allow my belly and solar plexus to relax and expand. I was surprised by this. With so many years of swimming, mountain biking, surfing, and playing sports, I had not learned how to breathe properly. No wonder I was easily irritable, anxious, and often nervous. At age 18, it felt like my conscious life began. All my social and academic struggles radically transformed with the introduction of breathing through my first yoga teachers. Within a few months, I went from being a struggling frustrated student to a focused and confident learner.
Breathing is regenerative and restorative. It can cleanse us of toxins that have built up in the body and the mind. It can help rid us of worries and tensions and bring us back to our true nature of relaxed openness and connection. This most basic and essential of all our activities can also be the most transformative. Many times I have felt tired and unmotivated, with a lot to accomplish; yet, with only a few minutes of breathing, I can feel refreshed and energized.
Beyond the baseline of natural breathing, there is also an art to cultivating your breath in more powerful ways. The teachings of yoga, martial arts and many other cultural and spiritual systems have deep roots in breath cultivation. According to many of these ancient teachings, breathing generates electromagnetic energy, or life force energy–commonly called Prana, Qi or Mana–which can heal your body and deepen your spiritual practices.
This is where the alchemy comes in, where conscious breathing becomes life changing. For a person who experiences a great deal of stress and tension, focusing on breathing and relaxing is the most effective way to recalibrate their nervous system. The autonomic nervous system can get stuck in a chronic sympathetic response that is wound up and hyper-fearful. In this case, the digestive system gets less blood supply and the body is on alert, commonly known as fight-or-flight response mode. Many people in fast-paced society are operating from a constant stress response in their autonomic nervous system. Breathing is a way of dismantling the habitual stress responses by establishing a deeper trust and embodied presence in each moment.
Chronic stress responses cause an overactive mind, poor health, and a disconnection from the natural cycles and interconnectedness with all of life. When you free up your breathing, you become brighter, more healthy and resilient. Every experience in life can become more harmonious and meaningful when you are in tune with the power and nourishment of consciously breathing.
From the perspective of the world’s great spiritual traditions, our breath not only brings needed oxygen and other gases to the physical body, but it is a major way that we release accumulated stress, emotional tension, and toxins. When we are conscious and intentional with our breathing, the finer energies (Prana, Qi, or Mana) needed to help nourish our bodies will invigorate and activate the energy flow within our subtle and energetic bodies. With enough accumulation of energy and meditative absorption, new frontiers of awareness light up and the finer spiritual dimensions of interconnection emerge. Whatever we may believe about our soul and spirit, our breath, and how we breathe, is intimately connected with all aspects of our being.
Breathing Exercise: The Complete Breath
The first phase in healthy breathing is to become conscious of how we actually breathe. Noticing whether we are relaxed and allowing the breath to naturally deepen into the lower belly or if the breath is shallow and primarily in the upper chest area. The diaphragm, which is located near the solar plexus, is a vital gateway of the breath. In a complete and healthy breath, the diaphragm easefully expands downward, along with the lower lobes of the lungs as if being drawn by the earth into your pelvis when you inhale. For this to easily happen, your body and emotional state need to be relaxed and feel safe. If you have a lot of tension or wound-up emotional stress, your diaphragm will be tight, as if locked in place.
Start by sitting with a straight spine. Allow each breath to gently deepen into your belly and roll up from the inside of your spine, creating a bit of lift and traction with each inhale as the air fills the upper lungs. On the exhale, let your body deflate and round forward a little as the air empties out of you, with a gentle squeezing of the abdomen at the end of the exhale. Repeat this wave-like breathing for a few minutes. Notice how easeful and natural it is to feel the breath roll through you from your pelvis up to your neck.
Expand Your Breath Capacity
The second phase is to begin to exaggerate and expand your breath capacity. Here you want to focus on using each inhale to stretch deeper into your pelvis and up fully into your ribs. Exaggerating your breathing releases structural tension and emotional blockages in the body. It also makes more space in your physical body, which allows your natural unconscious breathing to be more full and relaxed. Much like yoga postures, the breath can be used to stretch the body from the inside out. Many yogis say that Pranayama (yogic breathing practices) are the origin of the yoga postures and the very core of a true yoga practice.
Put one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your upper chest. Fill the lower hand with a large expanding breath and then continue expanding up into your upper hand, flaring the ribs out and stretching open in your entire chest area. Always focus on feeling the breath move not only in the front but also in the back of your body. Exaggerated breathing is a way of stretching yourself open from the inside out. This type of breathing can also be called structural breathing, as it restructures your posture by making more space throughout your torso, with the complete use of your lung capacity. This practice will also massage your organs and release any congestion throughout your intestines and liver.
Breathe to Purify and Cleanse
The third phase is to purify and cleanse the body with the exhale. When stretching and opening the body with large deep breaths, you allow for areas of congestion to be discharged through the blood and lungs. The lungs are a major organ of elimination, and the most significant way that we alkalize our bodies is through our breathing. In this phase, you focus on opening your mouth and emptying out your lungs on the exhale, encouraging the release of stagnant air, particulate, and carbon dioxide. Open your jaw wide and allow for a large volume of air to move through your trachea. You can also try adding a “HA” sound as a way to vibrate and increase the opening of your heart and clearing of stagnant energy.
The cleansing breath is a powerful practice to release stress and emotional build up. Whenever we have an emotional release, it comes out in some way through the mouth. Whether it be crying, laughing or anger, the mouth and breath play a major role in the experience. Focusing on clearing your lungs with a large yawn-like exhale will refresh and clear your body physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The next phase is to turn your attention inward with each breath and feel deeply into your body. The life force energy is directed by where your attention goes. Turning your attention inward and lighting up your internal feeling perception is a powerful way to heal your body and awaken spiritual awareness. As you feel and perceive your heart beating and the circulation throughout your body, you begin to accumulate the life force energy. Here is where the foundation of meditation is built. Your breath awakens inner perception, which builds concentration and energy, which leads to the remembrance and experience of profound spiritual connection.
With consistency of these simple breathing practices, there will be a gradual increase in your energy, clarity, and peace of mind. As the body receives more oxygen and life force energy, it will self-regulate and regenerate. Then you will begin to store up this vital energy; you might notice an increased sex drive and even feel more emotional. Keep building this energy and welcome more flow into your life. Let your breathing open you up all the way and move you through any of the challenges you face.
Whenever you have a few moments to pause or wait for someone, use it as an opportunity to focus on your breath. If you experience doubt, reaction or fear, you always have your breath to guide you into and through what you feel. No matter how old you are or feel, how you breathe will lead the way you live.
Breathe more, love more, laugh more!