Most of us live our lives thinking our way through the day. We give all of our attention to the brain and come to believe that it is not only the most important part, but that it is in control in all situations; the driver and the first to react. We are, according to John Prendergast “thought factories” and our attention is focused in our cognitive abilities. In other words, we are ‘top-heavy’. As a trauma-focused yoga therapist and yoga teacher trainer, I am here to tell you that the brain is actually the second thing to react in a situation and that it follows the reaction of the body.
Our bodies store experiences and emotions 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 feeling panicked and can’t rationally figure out why. This is the result of the nervous system and many times, the body is responding whether or not the brain is.
Many people suffer from a great disconnect between the mind and the body and this makes it very difficult if not impossible to be able to pick up on what the body is saying to us before it gets to a critical and function-impacting scream for our attention.
One of the easiest ways to change what is happening in the body is by changing 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. We have so much power over our experience when we begin to direct the breath.
The first breathing technique I teach in yoga therapy, in talk therapy, and in group yoga is how to take a full deep breath. Many of us never learn how to do this and we can break it down into three parts. If you were to watch a sleeping infant lying on their back, 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 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. We are also taught by the media to ‘suck’ in our bellies so that it appears as flat as possible, in an effort to live up to the cultural ideal of beauty, but this practice is also changing how we breathe and how we feel.
The first part of a three-part breath is belly breathing. Let’s imagine that we can direct our breath anywhere in the body that we want it to go. With our hands on our belly, imagine the breath going down into the belly on the inhalation as if inflating it like a balloon. (We must let go of the flat belly appearance here and embrace the Buddha belly concept.) Then, as we exhale, we can feel the belly deflating as the air leaves the body until we are empty and the abs begin to engage. We want to repeat this as many times as possible, but at least 3-5 times.
(If we are experiencing a different dynamic in our bodies so that as we inhale the belly draws in and as we exhale, it relaxes, feel free to reach out to me for help on coming back into belly breathing.)
The second part of a three-part breath is sometimes called lateral breathing and this is where we are focusing more on the ribs than the belly. If we place our hands on our ribs, we are attempting to widen the ribs out on the in-breath and narrow the ribs back down on the out-breath.
And finally, part three is the chest. This is where we inhale and feel the chest rising and exhale and feel the chest deflating.
To be able to take a full, deep breath, we want to put all three of these together and inhale through the nose filling the belly, widening the ribs, and filling the chest and then exhale, deflating the chest, narrowing the ribs, and emptying the belly.
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?!
We can also add counting to our breath as a 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 we can always combine it with the three-part breathing. Inhaling, counting to 4 in our mind and exhaling, count to 4 in our mind. We can adjust to the counts that feel best as long as we have the same number of counts for the inhale and exhale.
Unequal ratio breathing is just a longer exhalation than inhalation. If we can exhale longer than we inhale, we will help to calm the body as we are turning up the parasympathetic response in the nervous system. So, you can inhale for 4 counts and exhale for 6 or 8 counts to calm things down a bit.
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.
Chat again soon.