Just breathe…

Most of us live our life believing that the brain is in control and that it is the first to react in situations.  We are, according to John Prendergast “thought factories” and our attention is focused in our cognitive abilities.  In other words, we are ‘top-heavy’.  Well, I am here to tell you that the brain is actually the second thing to react in a situation and it follows the reaction of the body.

This is a huge piece of the trauma sensitive yoga that I teach and teach others to teach.  The body stores experiences and emotions basically in it’s own memory.  In any given situation, you may *think* that you are “ok”, or not even think about it at all, but then 30 minutes later, you are panicked and can’t figure out why.  Many times, the body is responding whether or not the brain is.

I have blogged many times about the disconnect many people suffer from between the head and the body and being able to listen to what the body is saying before it gets to a critical and function-impacting scream.

One of the easiest ways to change what is happening in the body is with the breath. By using specific breathing techniques, we can direct the reaction of the nervous system.  We can do any number of things like calm anxiety, focus the brain, warm ourselves from the inside out, lift our mood, and so on.

The first breathing technique I teach in counseling and in yoga is belly breathing. If you were to look at an infant lying on his or her back and sleeping, you would not see the chest rise and fall with the breath. You would see the belly inflating and deflating like a balloon. We are born naturally breathing deeply into our bellies. And then as we get older and learn the word ‘no’, we train ourselves out of belly breathing and into shallow, upper-chest, stress-linked breathing. As a woman, I have experienced the training to ‘suck’ my belly in so that it appears as flat as possible, as that is perceived as more beautiful and fit, but it is also changing how we breathe and how we feel.

For belly breathing, first, imagine that you can direct your breath anywhere you want it to go in your body. With your hands on your belly, imagine that you can actually breathe down into your belly as you inhale, taking a big, slow, deep breath, and inflating it like a balloon. (You must let go of the flat belly appearance here and embrace the Buddha belly concept.) Then, as you exhale, feel the belly deflating as the air leaves the body.  Repeat this as many times as you can, but at least 3-5 times.

Slow, deep breathing relaxes the body and releases endorphins.  Those are the natural pain killers in the body that create natural highs.  Who wouldn’t want more of that?!

The next 2 breathing techniques use counting in our heads as we breathe.  They are a great way to distract ourselves from bothersome thoughts and to give us something to focus on to calm the mind and body.

Equal ratio breathing brings balance into the breath, the body, and the mind.  And you can always combine it with belly breathing.  As you inhale, count to 4 in your mind and as you exhale, count to 4 in your mind.  You can find the count that works for you, but it is equal counts as you inhale and exhale.

Unequal ratio breathing is just a longer exhalation than inhalation.  Ok, lemme give you a little information on the nervous system here.  Every time we inhale, the Sympathetic Nervous System is engaged.  (Think stimulation or fight or flight) And, every time we exhale, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is engaged.  (Think rest and restore)  Soooo, if we can exhale longer than we inhale, we will be bringing on a calming response in the body.  So, you can inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 6 counts to calm things down a bit.

So, your homework is to try it!  Practice these breathing techniques every day and notice the changes in your body and mind. Be intentional and take your time with them. Get in touch with your body and make friends with it. You and your body will be glad you did. 

You know I will be breathing right along with you. 

Talk again soon.


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