Sample of first chapter: Breath by Breath
We know not what follows: our next breath or our next lifetime. — Tibetan saying
Consider giving yourself the gift, right this moment, of one full, natural breath: . . . . . . . in . . . . . . . . . . and out . . . . . . . . . . ahhhhhhhhhhh. . . . . How do you feel? Just one conscious breath can bring us back to the present, at home in the body.
Bodies love deep, conscious breathing. It is a gift we can give ourselves anytime, anywhere. We can live without food for many weeks and without water for several days, but we cannot survive without breath for more than a minute or so. We expire or die from lack of that which inspires us, nourishes us, and sustains us. .
Bodies know how to breathe–it is natural and involuntary. We might all die if we had to remember to breathe. We can survive and get through life with short, shallow –often fearful–breaths, but it is our deep, conscious breathing that is emotionally and physically healing. Mindful, natural breathing goes beyond living to thriving, and saying “yes” to life. We are saying: I accept life. I belong here. I have a right to be here. In yoga, conscious breathing is termed pranayama: prana (life or life force) and ayana
After smoking for 37 years, my mother’s final days included chest pain and a breathing machine. On her 85th (and last) birthday, she told me something obvious, “It scares me when I cannot breathe.” The reverse is also true: When we are scared, we stop or constrict the breath. There is a strong correlation between breath, thoughts, and emotions. Superficial breathing equals superficial living, afraid of scratching the surface of our feelings.
Most of us are unnaturally shallow and anxious breathers, often disconnected from our body and breath, as well as the present moment. One reason for this is pain. All of us have been frightened or hurt, possibly traumatized or even abused to some degree. Childbirth alone–arriving on planet Earth–can be traumatic! When we are scared or injured, we tend to freeze or contract our breath, and with it our energy. As we do this repeatedly, we create dams of stagnant energies in our body system. Like a river increasingly blocked by debris and branches, these energy blocks stifle the flow of life force through our body. Contracted breath activates the sympathetic nervous system–fight or flight–which tightens the eyes, constricts the body, triggers anxiety, and can even lead to life-threatening illnesses like high blood pressure and heart disease.
When we consider breathing deeply and consciously, we realize that this is no small thing! We are inviting ourselves to free up long-dormant energies, anxieties, and traumas, which means we will inevitably feel them, as they break free or surface. While healing takes us a step outside our comfort zone, we are not seeking to create more pain, but to release the old stuff and make space for more energy, more life!
My yoga teacher, Tracy Weber, says that she sometimes feels apprehension teaching the pranayama aspect of yoga, because invariably some of the students become angry with her. Apparently, as the deep breathing loosens up old wounds, students sometimes project their pain onto the perceived cause of their newly felt emotions, the teacher. Yet, just as fear stops or contracts the breath, the reverse is also true: by courageously and attentively deepening the breath, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, cleanse the fear, calm the mind, and activate the healing energies.
One of my yoga students, a middle-aged woman named Sandy, told me that she was on an alarming, bumpy flight and began to have a panic attack. Then she recalled what we do in our classes, and took several deep, natural breaths. She was astounded by how quickly her anxiety dissipated and her body relaxed.
Yoga teacher Gary Kraftsow says, “The ancient masters specifically developed the practice of pranayama (regulation of the breath) to balance the emotions, clarify the mental processes, and ultimately to integrate them into one effectively functioning whole.” When we breathe deeply, we are saying, “I allow the river to flow; I am not afraid of the current. Although the movement of energy means I will feel life more fully, I know that I can swim in it. I am so much larger, more real, and more powerful than my wounds, for I am the river of life itself. Breath is the wave, washing over me. I am the breath, returning to the sea.” As we let the river flow, the muddy emotional waters slowly clear, and we become less angry and moody, more alive and balanced in our energy and emotions.
Following the river of breath leads us to our spiritual Source. In many languages, the word spirit and breath are interchangeable. One of my yoga students at the local college once asked me: “How do I spiritualize my yoga practice?” This in itself is a wonderful and uncommon question, since yoga in the West is often more about the body than the traditional yogic goals of clearing the mind and union with the Divine. I suggested that she be with the breath; stay connected with it throughout her yoga practice. As we do this in our yoga class, and in our daily lives, we are not only being with the body, but with the movement of spirit in our lives.
Furthermore, we can let the breath (spirit) lead. Just before we react, move, or make any decision, we notice the breath and connect to that which sustains us. This invites spirit to lead our life, and lets the mind and body follow. Breathing deeply and consciously, we respond to life’s events rather than react.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with shallow breathing per se. Indeed, during deep meditation one’s breath slows, as the churning mind recedes, and a profound, indescribable peace emerges. One’s metabolism and heart rate slow–perhaps not unlike a sloth. These meditations can be wonderfully relaxing and joyful. Also, note that controlled breathing is actually unnecessary, and releasing control of the breath is a practice in trust and surrender.
Conscious, natural breathing is one simple and powerful practice that can anchor us to the present moment, help us release toxic emotional energy, and calm and clarify the mind. Enjoy and celebrate your breath.
Don’t let your throat tighten with fear. Take sips of breath all day and night, before death closes your mouth. — Rumi
-Throughout your day, simply notice your breath—is it deep or shallow?
-How does the depth of your breath affect your emotional state?
-How does your emotional state affect your breath?
-Notice that when you are aware of the breath, you are present.
Word of Caution: Never strain the breath. Strain not only eliminates the benefits, but is actually dangerous and could provoke serious problems. Pranayama is transformative and powerful, but a qualified teacher is advised.
Contemplation: Breath by Breath
-Observe the natural flow of your breath, in and out through the nostrils, with mouth closed.
-Feel the rise and fall of the chest and belly . . .
-Without strain, begin to slowly extend the length of both the in breath and out breath, easily and comfortably.
-See if there is a natural pause at the end of the in or out breath. Enjoy your breath.
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