To breathe, it's the most natural thing in the world, or so they say. Years ago, watching my baby boy sleeping, breathing seemed a whole body activity. His belly expanded like a balloon when he breathed in, his belly pushed downward as he exhaled. When I watched him I felt my whole body relax, there was nothing as beautiful as watching him sleep.
In my yoga classes, I notice the many ways we have interrupted what is the most natural things in the world, breathing. A woman comes in for a private session. Her husband has recently died, and her body is full of tension, exhaustion and grief. When we work on the mat together, I notice that she is barely breathing. Her tension is so deep and has been so constant; she is almost holding her breath. Holding her breath for something bad to happen, holding her breath so nothing else bad will happen. We work together for a while, and she gradually changes her breath from short and shallow to long and deep. She cries for the first time since her husband has passed away.
Breathing -- this thing we do on average 20 to 30 thousand times a day is something we don't think about. We remember our baby breathing their first breath, and if we are lucky we will be with a loved one when they draw their last. We don't remember many of our breaths in between. We don't notice it, we don't appreciate it and we don't understand its power.
It's been 14 years of yoga, and I feel it's taken this long to relearn what I did so naturally as a child.
The practice of yoga has totally changed my perspective on breathing; it's difficult to do yoga without tuning into breath. Practicing yoga without tuning into breath is more like gymnastics. From the first time we step on the map in a yoga class, we are asked to tune into our breathing, to close our lips and breathe in through the nose and out through the nose.
When I tried to do that in my first yoga class I almost passed out from lack of oxygen. Athletes are notorious mouth breathers, and obviously I needed some practice. When the instructor asked me to tune into my breathing the effort seemed enormous, I would try to control my breath, which caused me to come close to hyperventilating. It's been 14 years of yoga, and I feel it's taken this long to relearn what I did so naturally as a child.
In yoga we learn Pranayama, a way of breathing that brings breathe into different parts of our body. It teaches us to expand from the belly and drive breath into the deepest parts of ourselves. We take notice where the breath is stuck, where the body has stopped moving and we breath into those parts of ourselves.
Once we begin to understand how important breath is to our well being, how we stop breathing when we are stressed, how we breathe fast when we are excited or scared, how we exhale longer when we become relaxed -- once we begin to notice, we can use our breath to influence our mental and physical states. I guess as an athlete I knew this intuitively on some level. If I felt flat before a race I would breathe in short and fast to bring up my activation level, if I found myself not being able to harness the butterflies, I would breathe slow and long. Now I truly understand how breath affects our nervous system.
Esther Sternberg is a physician, author of several books on stress and healing, and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. She says rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It's part of the "fight or flight" response -- the part activated by stress. In contrast, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction -- the one that calms us down.
Years of studying yoga has changed my relationship with breathing, and once you become aware, you can never go back.
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To prepare for a restful night, Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, recommends this breathing technique, which acts like a natural tranquilizer. "Unlike sleep medications, which often lose effectiveness over time, 4-7-8 breathing is subtle at first but gains power with practice," Weil says. Try it: Place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth and keep it there throughout the exercise. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a gentle whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four. Now hold your breath for seven counts and follow with an eight-count whoosh exhale through the mouth. Complete three more cycles, repeating every five minutes until you drift off.
One small study found that yoga breathing exercises significantly improved lung function in patients with asthma when combined with medication. According to Larry Payne, PhD, founding director of the Yoga Therapy Rx certification program at Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University, this ancient rapid-fire breathing method is especially cleansing to the sinuses. Try it: Begin with a deep inhale through the nose, and on the exhale, breathe out short, powerful bursts, about one per second for ten seconds. That's one set; start with three sets and build as you go. Payne warns that this can increase your heart rate, so if you have high blood pressure or another heart condition, consult your doctor first.
"When we experience pain, we often hold our breath, which can contribute to inflammation through the release of the stress hormone cortisol," says Pernotto Ehrman. Try it: Close your eyes and imagine your body growing relaxed. As you breathe through your belly, visualize oxygen filling any areas of tension with comfort and calm. Then picture the pain leaving with each exhalation. "The longer you exhale, the more you stimulate the vagus nerve in the brain, telling it you're in a safe environment," says Chicago psychologist Michael Merrill, PhD.
This breathing style may ease nausea by encouraging peristalsis, the muscular contractions that move food down into the stomach. "Grounding breathing suppresses the gag reflex, and everything starts to flow in the right direction," says Pernotto Ehrman, who uses it with chemotherapy patients and pregnant women. Try it: Visualize walking barefoot down a long stone staircase. Inhale slowly through the nose for four counts while focusing on how cool the stones feel. Then exhale for eight to ten counts through pursed lips as you imagine taking a step down. Continue until the queasiness has passed.
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