Breathe for Your Life
“Stand up straight, suck in your belly, chest out”, these are the instructions most of us have filed away in the folder marked good posture. When we are told to take a deep breath we instinctively contract our bellies back towards our spine. These are the roots of the poor breathing habits we developed in childhood that have marched us staunchly into adulthood.
What we call life begins with our first breath and ends with our last breath. Breathing is the most basic and most important human function. We can live without food or water for days, but we can’t last more than a few minutes without our breath. Yet, we seldom give much thought to how we are breathing. Most all Alternative Health modalities are designed to enhance and increase the flow of chi or energy through the body. Proper breathing can have profound effect on the quality of our lives. It can even be said that proper breathing techniques are the basis for many alternative or holistic modalities and certainly can increase the effectiveness of self-regulating techniques like meditation, visualization, toning, and yoga. Breath Work is also a major component of Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and most other healing arts. It can also increase the value of reflexology, massage, and acupuncture. Learning to breathe correctly is the one of the most positive things we can do to improve our health. Ancient Chinese teachings proclaim that in order to be healthy we need to improve the flow of chi or energy in our bodies. The way we breathe makes a tremendous difference in our ability to keep chi, our life force, flowing through our bodies. For most Americans breathing is a shallow process involving only the upper portion of the lungs. The more stress one is experiencing, the tighter the constriction in the abdomen, the more difficult it becomes to inhale deeply. Shallow, superficial breathing deprives the body of oxygen and slows the bodily functions. It also continually fuels our fight or flight response sending a repeated message to our brain, “something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong”, while deep yogic or belly breathing sends the message to our brain, I am ok, I am ok, I am ok”.
The human body is an amazing machine. We are extremely resilient and can handle an extraordinary amount of stress. But, much like an electrical outlet – we work fine until the circuit is overloaded then we have a blow out. In each persons body this shows up in very individual ways depending on the predisposition of that person. In one individual this energy over load or blockage becomes a migraine headache, in another eventually an ulcer, someone else might develop cancer, or the immune system becomes compromised in such a way that we pick up every cold and flu that we are exposed to. How often have you had a few days of being under extraordinary stress only to wake up a few days later with a debilitating head cold? All of the functions in the body, voluntary and involuntary, are governed by the breath. The use of techniques to improve our breathing means improved functioning of all our organs and systems including: respiratory, circulatory, digestive, glandular and nervous systems. This result is greater resistance to disease, and automatic increases in calmness and productivity.
If you watch an infant sleeping you will notice that their stomach expands as they breathe in and contracts as they breathe out. This is the same as the complete yogic breath. Once I was shown this complete yogic breath took me six months of practice for it to become my normal mode of breathing. I would breathe consciously in the grocery line, at every stop light, and walking between showrooms while working in New York City. I found that it calmed me, shifted my mood dramatically, and eliminated any anxiousness I might be experiencing. Eventually, deep expansive breathing became my norm.
Below are some simple yet powerful breathing techniques that can be used to restore the flow of prana (energy, chi, ki) to the body.
Breathing Techniques Breathing Techniques – Pranayama 1. Complete Yogic Breath
Inhale deeply through your nose. Relax your abdominal muscles and let your belly expand like an inflated balloon.
Exhale through your nose, and contract your stomach muscles until the diaphragm expands and presses upward into the thoracic cavity under the ribs.
Continue breathing until you have established a natural rhythm. Notice your abdomen rise and fall.
After filling your lower lungs, concentrate on filling first your middle lungs, and then your upper lungs. As you exhale, first deflate your upper lungs, then your middle lungs, and then deflate the abdomen. Make your breath steady and rhythmic, like a wave rising and flowing in and out again.
2. Ujjayi - Ocean Sounding Breath
Inhale through your nose, drawing your breath in slowly. Contract the back of your throat slightly as if making an “ahhh” sound, but with the mouth closed. This will create a slight hissing sound at the back of the throat as the air passes over the windpipe. Contracting the back of your throat also lets you regulate the flow of your breath thereby allowing you to prolong the inhalation and exhalation.
As you continue with the slow inhalation, let your abdomen relax and expand using the Yogic breathe above.
Continue to contract the back of the throat slightly as if making an “eeeee” sound, with the mouth closed while you exhale. Exhale as you slowly pull the abdomen in and up to fully empty your lungs. Control the flow of your breath - let it be long and slow.
3. Anulom Viloma – Alternate Nostril Breath
Bring the right hand to the nose - tuck the index finger and middle finger into the palm of the hand. Use the thumb to close off the right nostril and the third and fourth fingers when you close off the left nostril
Close the right nostril with your thumb and breathe in through the left nostril to the count of two.
Hold the breath, closing both nostrils to the count of eight.
Keep the left nostril closed with your third and fourth fingers. Breathe out through the right nostril to the count of four.
Keep the left nostril closed and breathe in through the right nostril to the count of two.
Hold the breath, closing both nostrils to the count of eight.
Keep the right nostril closed with your thumb and breathe out through the left nostril to the count of four.
This completes one round – continue at your own pace.
This breathing technique is particularly good for engaging both the right and left hemisphere of the brain before an examination or performance.
One other powerful breathing method that is used specifically for healing and transformation is Holotropic Breathe Work. In the past it has been called Rebirthing. This is a simple circular breath that is engaged in over a period of half an hour to an hour resulting in an altered state of consciousness that allows the body to reveal and release past trauma. In my experience as a practitioner it is one of the most cathartic processes available, but should only be attempted with a trained practitioner. In closing I invite you to notice and give thanks for your breath, at least for a few moments everyday. Try some of the techniques above and don’t forget to... Breathe for Your Life.
Judy Milinowski is a Reiki Practitioner, Shamanic Practitioner, Inter-faith minister, and Behavioral Kinesiologist with a private practice in Boothbay Harbor. She offers workshops, individual and group retreat, and leads spiritual journeys to sacred places around the world.