Breathing and visualization are profound tools for navigating our way through even the busiest or messiest of lives. Much like a trusty compass leading an outdoor enthusiast to a desired destination, these practices guide one into and through the inner world. Apply the beneficial and easy-to-use practices found in this book, and watch stress melt away. The result will be that your health, your relationships, and even your career may blossom in beautiful and unexpected ways.
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Breathing In Animates and Oxygenates
Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again.
-L. Frank Baum
Breath sustains and animates us. Thankfully, breathing is a function in the body that happens whether we think about it or not. Even though it is a part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the involuntary activities in our bodies, it can be manipulated consciously. Doing so offers a sense of control over how we feel in any given moment.
Breathe in and notice how you feel. It may be that right now, you feel no different than you did before. But you are not only bringing air into the lungs when you inhale, you are also facilitating a gaseous exchange, which helps cleanse and fuel every cell in your body. With practice, bringing more awareness to how you breathe may change the way you breathe to change the way you feel, in part because of the influence of body chemistry. Focusing your awareness on how you breathe is the first step in facilitating a positive change in your health and overall well-being. Allow your awareness to guide you.
Connecting With Life Force Energy
Long ago in India, people realized that the way we breathe could be manipulated in specific ways to facilitate various outcomes. This understanding came about by tuning in to the subtle quality of the breath, which is an energy that permeates the entire body. They called this energy prana. The practice of breathing intentionally and with awareness is called pranayama, and it is a common application in the field of yoga.
The word pranayama is an ancient Sanskrit term that refers to the way one might manipulate the breath to achieve specific results. It also refers to the science of breathing. The first part of the word, prana, refers to life force energy, which travels on the breath. This is the same energy that is called ITLχITL in traditional Chinese medicine and ki in Japanese medicine. Mystical Christian traditions allude to it as the Holy Ghost, also considered the Great Spirit by some Native Americans.
While the lungs fill with breath, prana, or life force energy, travels through the entire body, nourishing us at the cellular level. Fine-tuning your awareness of the breath leads to a heightened awareness of energy flow. As your practice grows more refined, you may notice how prana permeates your entire body each time you breathe in. As you become adept at this, you can consider whether to restrain a component of the breath or breathe without restraint to facilitate specific results.
In Sanskrit, the second part of the word pranayama may be broken out as yama, often translated as restraint or ayama, which means without restraint. Both apply to the manner in which we take breath in, hold it, and release it out from the body. Understanding the translation of this ancient word may assist you in becoming conscious of the subtle effects that breathing can have on your body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Breathing can be manipulated to increase energy, decrease intense reactions to acute situations, or simply to nourish your body and mind. With time, you may become skilled at modifying your breath to feel more alert, vibrant, and content.
You can also use breath to unite all parts of who you are and to link yourself to everything around you. Taking a conscious breath in is the first step in learning to breathe.
Playing With Pranayama
In yoga, pranayama practices are used as tools for deepening one's connection to the flow of life force energy. There is an energetic pathway which is referred to in ancient texts as the divine body and often called the subtle body through which this energy travels. As air fills our lungs, prana moves through this energetic pathway, nourishing us on many levels. It also helps to calm the mind by providing an inner focus for our attention. These actions are what transform breathing, which is often an unconscious act, into art.
Art, like play, integrates the two hemispheres of the brain, allowing us to bring our whole selves into what we're doing. When you explore breathing practices (pranayama) in a playful manner, consider the artful actions that have the power to transform the stresses of modern living. The result may be that your whole world appears brighter and more buoyant.
Beginning now, you are invited to consider how you breathe. Establish an awareness of how you breathe, and seek to do so in a light and playful manner. As you progress, you may naturally begin to take longer, slower, more comfortable breaths. Continue this to initiate a positive lifelong relationship with your breath, and it will support you in bringing your whole self into all you do and support you in being all you are meant to be.
Find Your Own Way To Be
The art of breathing is really about being, rather than doing. While the act of breathing is natural to all of us, each person's pranayama practice will be unique. Let yours develop over time. Some find that they really like the nourishing quality that comes when they take time to breathe in more deeply than they have been used to doing. Some enjoy a sense of deep rest available to them during the pauses between the in-breath (inhalation) and out-breath (exhalation). Others find that they prefer to focus on the exhalation because it facilitates the release of stress and strain, and in so doing, it helps them maintain a balanced level of energy throughout challenging experiences. Regardless of what your experience is, remaining mindful of how you breathe often brings improvements that are pleasant and compelling over time.
Wisdom from age-old traditions tells us that a longer, fuller breath leads to a longer, fuller life. These traditions tell us that the life span of a person is measured by the number of breaths they take. Swara yogis, those who concern themselves with the science of yogic breathing, believe that if a person breathes at an average rate of fifteen breaths per minute (which means that each breath lasts approximately four seconds) throughout their lifetime, they may very well live for 120 years. Modern science is starting to prove what the ancients experienced long ago, which is that the energy, or prana, that travels on the breath is what brings life to the whole body and that when we slow down our breathing rate, our bodies more deeply absorb prana. (Ref. 4)
Conscious breathing, qigong, yoga, acupuncture, and reiki are techniques with historic roots that work with this energy flow by manipulating the channels in the subtle body through which life force energy flows. Traditionally, these techniques have been used to slow us down so that we might focus on the integration between the body, mind (as both intellect and emotion), and soul. The result is that we move away from stress and move toward a more intimate relationship with the essence of who we are. In this way, we more effectively connect with the flow of life within us and all around us.
Breathe In Again and Notice: Refining Awareness
This is a good time to bring your awareness to your breath again. Take a full breath in now. Pay attention to how you feel as you do this. Notice what parts of your body move as you breathe in. Can you ascribe qualities to the way you breathe? Was the breath you just took a short breath or a long one, a deep breath or a shallow breath? Was breathing in easy or challenging? Did you notice any restriction in your breathing? Become curious and mindful of your breathing.
Deepening your awareness of how you breathe can lead to positive changes in how you feel. Let's take it one step — one breath — at a time.
Benefits Of A Pranayama Practice
Calms the mind, increasing ability to focus
Stabilizes the emotions, minimizing mood swings
Nourishes the body down to the cellular level
Familiarizes us with the many aspects of who we are
Facilitates bringing out our best selves in all we do
Cultivating The Art Of An Easy Breath
The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil.
-Marcus Tullius Cicero
What is an easy breath you ask? It is the first step on the journey toward establishing, maintaining, or reclaiming radiant good health. It may reflect a refinement of the way you breathe. An easy breath is one that is conscious, fluid, and smooth, and it lends a sense of calmness and security to body and mind. Associated with an easy breath is the ability to breathe on a horizontal plane rather than up and down. By this, I mean that when you take an easy breath, your tummy and ribs, your torso, and even your chest seem to expand out as you breathe in. There is no lifting of the shoulders. Like the slow and rhythmic movement of placid ocean waves washing elegantly onto the shore and then merging again with their source, the ocean, your breath expands you into your fullness while connecting you with the source of your being. Allow it to move effortlessly and expand in all directions as you take it in and release it out.
As a foundation for the other practices presented in this book, crafting an easy breath will set you up to fully benefit from additional breathing tools. The first step in this is to tell yourself that the time you devote to cultivating an awareness of how you breathe is time well spent. Doing this not only leads to a calmer mind, it also nourishes the tissues of your body in a health giving way.
Please find a secluded spot where you will be left alone for a period of time. Once settled, take note of how you feel in both body and mind. Can you describe how you feel right now? Do you feel in a hurry to move through this book so you can minimize stress right away? Are you anxious or are you doubting the effectiveness of these practices? Perhaps you are curious about the tools and eager to learn. Are you aware of any tension in your body? Maybe you feel tired after a long and demanding day or a restless night of sleep. It may be unfamiliar to probe your experience in this way, but doing so is the way to effect positive change. As you ponder thoughts, feelings, and sensations, breathe as you are used to. Breathe in a way that is natural and normal for you.
It's natural to feel uncertain about change and want to avoid it, wondering about what might unfold as you engage with conscious breathing. Common responses to change include fear, anxiety, passivity, and doubt. Your mind (which some would refer to as the ego here) may be thinking that things are moving way too slowly right now and telling you that you have better things to do with your time. Or it may be worrying about how much work this is going to be, or what might happen when you change the way you breathe. That's okay. While we are not always aware of the workings of our mind, wondering about these things is normal. Often, our fears and concerns impact us less when we acknowledge them, and we learn to courageously move ahead in spite of them. What's important is to move forward slowly so the nervous system has time to unwind as you progress. That will lead to success.
As your ability to observe experiences in your body and your mind grows stronger, the flow of your breath will grow stronger too. Soon, you may find that you become less distracted by activities outside of you and are better able to focus on the task at hand, be it breathing mindfully, balancing your bank account, preparing for an exam, or making decisions pertinent to the success of your company. With time, you may be able to maintain awareness of your breath flow without being pulled off center by thoughts, which is quite a pleasant experience.
As you learn to relax into the experience of breathing, little exertion is needed. You allow the breath to move with minimal effort, releasing the need to manage or control it. As a result, you may become more aware of the sources of stress in your life and be able to address them effectively if that is your desire.
Then you are in the driver's seat for managing your health. It all begins by artfully cultivating an easy breath.
Cultivating The Art Of An Easy Breath, Part One
> In a distraction free environment, sit or lie down. Take awareness out of your head and place it in your body. Sink your awareness down into the support of the chair, couch, bed, or floor beneath you.
> Now, breathe in deeply and sigh out your breath. Breathe that way again, two or three times. If you are able to, breathe in through your nose and release the breath with an obvious and perhaps loud sigh through the mouth. Sighing helps release tension and brings us into the present moment.
> Then rest for a moment. Breathe naturally. Pay attention to how you feel. What do you notice? Your breath rate may have slowed. Tension may have diminished. Can you tell if you feel any different than before you took those deep breaths?
Refining your ability to note how you feel moment-by-moment may become a pleasant side effect of heightened breath awareness. As mentioned before, this is what turns the act of breathing into an art. Establish that super power and you're on your way to cultivating the art of an easy breath.
Cultivating The Art Of An Easy Breath, Part Two
When you are ready for more, again focus your awareness on the movement of breath into and out from your body. If possible, breathe in and out only through your nose now and smooth out your breath as you go. Imagine a central channel or energetic column running up and down through your body, connecting the crown of your head with your tailbone. As you breathe in, invite your whole torso to expand out in all directions from that central column. Allow it to recede back in as you exhale. Take three to five rounds of breath in this way. Then pause and breathe as you typically do when not giving it much thought.
Find Your Calm By Taking Deeper And Slower Breaths
Stress management gurus tell us that unconscious breath restraint as in the case of a busy, frightened, or harried person who breathes shallowly — causes stress levels to elevate. Some people experience headaches, fatigue, anxiety, or depression as a result. Taking quick, short, shallow breaths is inefficient because air often reaches only the upper lobes of the lungs. This causes us to breathe faster to collect the oxygen that our tissues need to function. As our breathing rate increases, body tissues have little time to absorb the oxygen they need. The sympathetic or excitatory nervous system is stimulated and cortisol levels increase, resulting in a cascade of negative impacts. Over time, we may grow tired, lethargic, and perhaps even ill.
In contrast, taking slower, deeper, and more complete breaths helps us feel more vital and relaxed. In part, this happens because air is traveling deeper into the lungs and more oxygen is available for use by the body's cells. Deep and easy breathing has a positive effect on the nervous system. It allays the fight, flight, or freeze response of the sympathetic nervous system that is exacerbated by modern daily living.
With greater amounts of oxygen coming in to the body due to deeper, slower breathing, the nervous system — brain included — has a chance to rest, and hormone levels even out. Balance, or homeostasis, then returns to all body systems. As this happens, health improves. Cultivating an easy breath is a great first step in this process.
Rooting Into Awareness
It is common for the obligations and activities of daily living to pull awareness up into the mind and out into the world around you. When that happens, you become less aware of what's going on inside yourself. Making time in your day to sit and concentrate on how you breathe pulls awareness back into your body.
Try this now: Whether you are standing or sitting, imagine that you can anchor down into the energy of the earth. Sink your awareness into your feet. Allow your bottom half to root while your spine rises up out of the pelvis. Apply as little effort as possible while doing this.
Now, imagine a tall tree sinking roots deep into the earth. The roots nourish and energize the tree. The branches and leaves reach for the sunlight in the sky. Become like a tree. Does that contribute to feeling more grounded and stable?
Excerpted from "Learning To Breathe, Learning To Live"
Copyright © 2017 Sharon Harvey Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Breathing In Animates And Oxygenates, 1,
Chapter 2: Cultivating The Art Of An Easy Breath, 9,
Chapter 3: Opening To The Mystery, 19,
Chapter 4: Befriending The Belly Breath, 33,
Chapter 5: Listening To The Sound Of The Breath, 53,
Chapter 6: Modulating The Breath, 65,
Chapter 7: The Mountain Breath, 75,
Chapter 8: Honoring Emotions, 87,
Chapter 9: Imagine The Possibilities, 95,
Chapter 10: Putting It All Together, 109,
Appendix A: General Wellness Tips, 123,
Appendix B: A Five-Week Plan, 125,
References and Referrals to Additional Information, 135,
About The Author, 137,