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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 77 EVERY CHEST is expanding and contracting with the con- stant motion of breathing. Whether you are in a waiting room, sitting on a bus or lying next to someone watching TV, take a moment to look around right now: all of us are breathing all the time whether we are aware of it or not. We breathe when we are sleep- ing, when we are eating, when we are exercising, when we are talking and when we are kissing. Although we may not pay attention to the movement, texture or sound of our breathing, the quality of the breath directly relates to both the experience of the mind and the condition of the body. When we become disturbed by external circumstances, our breathing pattern changes. We may gasp, sigh, hold our breath or even scream, which is an exhale. This breathing response will, in turn, intensify our already unbalanced emotional state, making it even more agitated. This kind of zigzag recycling of reactions creates a bottleneck of energy that can manifest variously as anxiety attacks, tension headaches, a tight chest, a haggard face and physical weakness due to lack of oxygen. The good news is that the action of breathing—the only vital func- tion of our body that is both involuntary and voluntary—is easily acces- sible, right at the tips of our noses. Other circulatory activities such as the flow of blood, water and lymphatic fluids require specialized physi- cal activity like massage or yoga practice to even begin to unblock the body’s juices and coax them along the proper viaducts. But with a little practice in the ancient yogic art of pranayama we can all begin to expe- rience the benefits of unobstructed wind energy—deep, full breathing. Pranayama is sometimes translated as “to release life energy from its bounds,” and it’s true that when we can free the breath from both men- tal and physical constraints, it’s as good as opening a tight belt after Thanksgiving dinner. There are various breathing techniques designed to invigorate or relax the nervous system, balance the active and passive energies, cleanse the sinuses or cultivate harmony and wellbeing. But before try- ing to master the pranayama vocabulary, the ancient texts recommend that we begin with the foundation of pranayama—gaining a deeper awareness of ourselves through observation of the breath. Pranayama is, first of all, a form of familiarization. It is an elemental way of knowing who we are on all levels—heart, body and mind. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras say the practice of pranayama “removes the veil from the light of consciousness.” Pranayama instruction is similar to meditation instruction which invites us to take an unbiased approach to what is going on in our mind, not judging it or trying to change it. The same instruction goes for how to begin working with your breath. Please note, though, that breath awareness is different than the prac- tice of meditation, where we use the breath as a home base for resting in the present moment. Pranayama is about the actual breath, about cul- tivating a new relationship to the breath, and about learning to recog- nize what is called our “authentic breath.” Over time the practice of breath awareness will begin to reverse the downward spiral of emotion affecting breathing affecting emotion; the authentic breath will begin to simply “happen” naturally in our everyday lives. 1. Corpse Pose: This is sometimes called “relaxation pose,” but it is really more than that. It is a technique for recognizing the imperma- nence of our body and acknowledging that someday we will lose this physical identity. Make yourself as comfortable as possible so that no one part of your body will begin to cry for attention. Let go of all physi- cal effort and tension. Like a corpse, you should feel sensation-less, feel nothing. Position your arms about 10 inches from the sides of your body with your palms facing up. This position supports the action of the heart and lungs. The legs should be slightly wider than your hips, with the feet falling open naturally. Begin by simply observing the breath. Notice if you have an idea of what good breathing is and try to let that go for now. Watch how your breath flows in and out. Notice where your breath seems to go naturally and where it sometimes feels tight. No problem. There is no right or wrong way for each breath to feel. Observe how the next breath is dif- ferent from the one before it. Continue this observation but now place your hands on your lower belly, between your navel and your pubic bone. Feel how they ride up when you inhale and back down as you exhale, like floating in a raft on the ocean. Each breath will be as different as each wave in the sea. After at least eight breaths, move your hands to the upper belly, between the navel and the sternum. Feel the opening and closing of the rib cage like a caliper or a bellows. Last, place your hands on your chest, between your sternum and your collarbones. Feel free to move your hands around in each of these designated areas, exploring the sides of the body as well as the front. Let the part of your torso that is touching the floor give you some feedback for how and where your breath moves in the back of your body. Sometimes the breath is obstructed for physical reasons; for instance, the muscular support for the breathing apparatus—lungs, ribs, collarbones, diaphragm—may be weak or tight. Each of the following positions creates openings in commonly blocked areas such as the hips and chest. Follow the same breathing awareness instructions. You can YOGA • CYNDI LEE Breathing Room “Freeing the breath from both mental and physical constraints is like opening a tight belt after Thanksgiving dinner.” PhotosbyWarner