I enter each living creature, and dwell within as the life-giving breath. Bhagavad Gita
I’ve been writing my way into corners for a few hours now. Writing, like meditating, can show you the grooves that you get stuck in. I know I’m in trouble when my posts turn into rants, and although I enjoy a Rick Mercer moment as much as anyone, it’s a place I don’t want to go today. So I decided to pause and just breathe.
I teach a lot of breathing in my classes, because there is no better tool for joining body and mind. The respiratory system is the only system in the body that is innervated by both the somatic, voluntary system and also by the autonomic or “unconscious” nervous system. The respiratory system can act as a bridge (over troubled waters) precisely because it has these two types of wiring.
Rolf Sovik describes the respiratory system as having three parts: voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary:
The voluntary system allows us to hold our breath, play a wind instrument, sing, or whisper, or whoop.
The involuntary system means that our breathing doesn’t stop when we fall asleep at night, and it automatically knows to speed up when we need to exert physical effort.
The non-voluntary system has to do with the way that our thoughts and emotions affect how we breathe. When I get tense and worried about meeting a deadline, my breath gets short, tight, and shallow. The limbic part of my brain, where my emotions live, exerts an influence on the very deep, old part of the brain that controls the regulation of breathing. Fortunately, this non-voluntary response can be tempered by conscious acts of respiratory kindness. A deep inhale with a long, breathy sigh can release the sensations of tightness in the tissues of the body, and lessen my feelings of fear or frustration.
Andrew Weil, the wellness guru, once said that if he were only allowed to make one suggestion to people to improve their health he would tell them to breathe.
Yoga considers breathing a tool for improving and moving Prana (the energy inside us). In the eight-limbed system of yoga, the skilful movement of prana is considered a precursor to all of the techniques and practices designed to settle the mind. The term for the breath-training techniques is pranayama. In Sanskrit “pra” means moving, “na” means always, “yama” means to restrain and the “a” in front of yama negates it. In short, pranayama means to get out of the way of the natural flow of life energy. Typically, it is stress, negative thinking, memories, and emotions that short circuit our breathing.
Some types of breathing are stimulating or “pranic,”—imagine panting or roaring like a lion. Other types are calming, like sighing or taking long, slow exhales. Generally, it is a good idea to learn pranayama with a teacher, because it does have an effect on your nervous system and it can be unsettling if practiced without some introductory knowledge. Once you have learned the basics, pranayama can be a rewarding and satisfying tool for soothing body and mind.
Taking a long, deep, luscious breath,
What’s your favourite breathing practice? Leave me a message in the comments below.