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THE BREATH OF LIFE

Most of the time most of the people breathing pay almost no attention to the act, but it is a powerful way to tap into and alter our state of being.  Breathing can be regulated consciously, but typically we allow the autonomic nervous system to take control of this function.  However, when we do elect to pay attention to and alter our breathing we can quickly bring change to this autonomic nervous system (ANS), or sympathetic nervous system, which is largely outside our control.  In this article I will introduce two powerful breathing techniques which calm and strengthen at the same time due to this unique connection to the ANS. 

Dr Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona's Integrative Medicine program teaches this relaxing breath:
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise

This exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count ofeight.
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.

This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.

In his excellent audio Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing, Dr Weil reports phenominal changes in people's physiological states through breathing consciously. He does note, however, that consistent long-term practice is the key to achieving these results.

Abdominal Breathing

Another soothing way to breathe is to bring the breath all the way down into the abdomen and is also called diaphragmatic breathing. The technique is simple and is compatible with the Relaxing Breath.

  • Inhale, filling the chest cavity to about half capacity
  • Expand the breath down into the abdomen, causing the abdomen to inflate and fill the remaining capacity in the chest as well. If you place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen you will know you are filling your lungs to full capacity when the hand on your abdomen is higher than the hand on your chest.
  • Allow the air to escape naturally and evenly. In general, the exhalation will be twice as long as the inhalation.

With practice, this breath becomes natural and even. Create a system to remind yourself to practice the breathing exercises. Something common and frequent, such as going to the restroom or opening the refrigerator, could be used to trigger the reminder to breathe.

This technique works when (and draws its name from) the diaphragm, which is a large muscle located between the chest and the abdomen, contracts it is forced downward causing the abdomen to expand. This causes a negative pressure within the chest forcing air into the lungs. The negative pressure also pulls blood into the chest improving the venous return to the heart. This leads to improved stamina in both disease and athletic activity. Like blood, the flow of lymph, which is rich in immune cells, is also improved. By expanding the lung's air pockets and improving the flow of blood and lymph, abdominal breathing also helps prevent infection of the lung and other tissues. But most of all it is an excellent tool to stimulate the relaxation response that results in less tension and an overall sense of well being.

It is thought by many cultures that the process of breathing is the essence of being. A rhythmic process of expansion and contraction, breathing is one example of the consistent polarity we see in nature such as night and day, wake and sleep, seasonal growth and decay and ultimately life and death. In yoga, the breath is known as prana or a universal energy that can be used to find a balance between the body-mind, the conscoius-unconscoius, and the sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous system. Unlike other bodily functions, the breath is easily used to communicate between these systems, which gives us an excellent tool to help facilitate positive change. It is one of only a few bodily functions that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily. We can consciously use breathing to influence the involuntary (sympathetic nervous system, ANS) that regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, digestion and many other bodily functions. Pranayama is a yoga practice that literally means the control of life or energy. It uses breathing techniques to change subtle energies within the body for health and well being. Breathing exercises can act as a bridge into those functions of the body of which we generally do not have conscious control.

Sources:

Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing, Dr Weil, via Sounds True; http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART00521/three-breathing-exercises.htmlhttp://www.amsa.org/healingthehealer/breathing.cfm