Wellness Wednesday: Just Breathe

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“Some nights I laid awake forgetting to breathe, so caught up in grief I could almost hear the audible sound of my heart breaking in two.”

By Ali Valdez

Have you ever felt yourself falling down that slippery slope into anxiety, anger or fear? We all have. At first, you may panic, but then at some point your rational mind hopefully steps in and reminds you to take a deep breath.

There is a reason that taking in air and holding it for some time is an effective stress-management tool; it works. Being reminded to breathe is something that has become a cliché in our culture—Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Anna Nalick, even Pearl Jam, anyone?

From the time we come into the world, one of our biggest moments is the “breath of life”—that first dramatic inhale that for most infants kicks off a howling crying. From that moment we use our breath to take in food and bring attention to discomfort like hunger or gas.

In yoga, we employ breathing techniques called “pranayama”—the observance of life force moving in us—to create certain effects on the brain. This in turn sends more appropriate messages to our body, impacting our actions, re-actions and overall presence of mind.

When in a state of anxiety, we breathe in one of three ways:

– we hold our breath and forget to breathe evenly

– we suppress our emotions and begin to hyperventilate

– we get so worked up, we begin to breathe sporadically, causing our heart rates to soar.

I find myself to be more of a breath holder. In situations that are stressful to me, I will observe at some point that my breath has stopped all together. In yoga, when I an consciously holding my breath, I can sustain this for a long period of time —a technique called “kumbhaka.” These retentions are a coping mechanism.

Yoga means “yoke” or “union.” The physical movements of the body—”asanas“—become more challenging and complex as the yogi becomes more advanced in their practice. Being able to put your body into complex positions and hold for time with evenly-metered breath is a metaphor for managing your way through life and its multi-faceted complexity with ease and grace. When the most tricky situations are met with equanimity and grace, then the bigger transformational work begins.

Basic “pranayama” techniques that can be used throughout the day or in a contemplative space, help keep the mind balanced, the heart rate consistent and the body relaxed. This is called “so-hum pranayama” and is a simple equally metered inhale and exhale through the nostrils. Depending on your own breathing skills, count your inhale and exhale of equal duration building up to breath counts of twelve. Keeping the cadence of the inhale and exhale even within the breath is equally important as a second step.

Why the nostrils you ask? The nostrils help regulate the O2 or oxygen intake. You do not want too much. We yawn as an example to pump extra oxygen in so that we stay awake. Casinos employ this technique by pumping fresh oxygen into the betting floors so people stay up longer to spend their money.

As you advance, eventually you begin to work through retention at the tops of inhales and exhales, but ideally this is being guided by a professional yoga teacher. Over time you will see results.

Back in 2000, I had just done a pretty dramatic move from Manhattan to San Francisco. After this move I became very serious about my yoga practice. I also had fallen in love with someone that I was sure I was going to marry. One day, I realized that was not the path for me and ended up making a pretty bold decision to end it. Although this was the wise thing for me to do, my heart did not necessarily acquiesce to the same wisdom. Some nights I laid awake forgetting to breathe, so caught up in grief I could almost hear the audible sound of my heart breaking in two.

Then I went to yoga. I was laying in “savasana” (corpse pose) when I was struck with that same grief that visited me at night, stealing my sleep and filling my eyes with tears. I had to breathe with intention and steadiness, finding ease with the breath no matter what. It was a turning point for me when I put two and two together, applying this same discipline in “pranayama” to my life off the mat and in the world. Instead of holding it all in or allowing it to explode out, I did what an even-tempered yogini would do: I just breathed. Inhale for eight, exhale for eight.

Relentlessly I channeled my mind to pursue the breath. The observance of the life force within in, as exemplified by the breath, helped me to cope with heartache and no longer heat break.

I was a new person.

Now when things start to get out of hand, I turn first to my partner, the breath. It is a faithful and trusty companion which has served me well.

I cannot share enough how grateful I am to have found my yoga practice at that time in my life. It took on the power of prayer and devotion and made it applicable to caring for my body and conditioning my mind. I am not sure how I would have made it through without learning “pranayama” and how to use it during the most awkward and unnatural human positions held for almost unbearable amounts of time.

I would like to see more people commit to the observance and refinement of the breath. They would see just how effective a tool this truly is.

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My dear SheLoves friends, I would love to hear about your experience with “pranayama“:

  • Try to practice two minutes of so-hum pranayama each day in the a.m. and then once again if you find yourself feeling rushed, stressed or angry.
  • Journal the results and let me know what you experienced
  • Has breathing in a controlled manner helped you to cope with stressful situations in your life?

 

About Ali:

My name is Ali Valdez and I live between Seattle and Houston. I am a Christian yoga instructor, academic and writer, and devote most of my time in servitude to my students, who are yoga teachers or studio owners developing yoga communities in their cities and towns. I have also worked and led Kindergarten and small groups at my church. I love religion, philosophy and man’s inquiry on all things of higher order. I have devoted my life to study and am versed in the metaphysical, philosophical and topics of comparative religion. Practically, I love wellness, nutrition, the gross and subtle energy bodies, healing, alternative medicine, fitness, exercise, and healthful levels on many levels. I have done crazy things like marathons, sky-diving and state-of-the-art spa treatments. I look forward to connecting with you all and sharing whatever insights I may have that serve you in your aspirations. For fun, I travel the world, host retreats globally, read and write on my blog, the Gadabout. I also party with my Bun, a little five-year-old named Mathilde. You can learn more about what I do at sattvayogaonline.com

 

 

 

Image credit: flickr.com (Creative commons license)

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