The Breath of Life
Approaches to managing stress are as varied as the people who use them. Perhaps because of the complexity of human nature and the daily events we find ourselves in, it is fair to say that no two people will deal with stress the same way. Yet if there were one relaxation technique that could be described as “one size fits all,” belly breathing would win hands down. The long deep sigh, the epitome of taking a moment to relax, is really what belly breathing is all about. Unlike most techniques, it can be done anywhere, at any time, and no one is the wiser.
Breathing is easy, and we pretty much take it for granted because it doesn’t require a whole lot of thought. But by and large, Americans are chest breathers (whether you are a man or a woman, I guess it looks good to have a big chest.) The problem with chest breathing is that it places pressure on a bundle of nerves under the chest bones and can actually trigger the stress response. Of course, when we sleep, the ego is off duty and we revert back to belly breathing—the style most conducive for relaxation.
Ancient mystics tell us that the word breath and spirit are synonymous, suggesting that divine energy is found within the precious movements of inhalation and exhalation. As such, the breath of life is no mere metaphor. Interestingly enough, every technique to promote relaxation employs some aspect of breathing and this is the technique I begin each class with. A wise sage once said, “There are forty different ways to breathe.” Here are two styles I use in class:
This technique can be traced back to the origins of the eastern philosophy and religion in both Asia, with the practice of yoga, and Japan with the practice of Zen meditation. It was introduced as a cleansing process for the mind and body, the end result being complete relaxation. You can do this technique either sitting or lying down.
To begin, close your eyes and focus all your attention on your breathing. Draw air from the belly. Try inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Visualize the air that you breath in as being clean fresh air, pure and energized air, like a white puffy cloud.
As you breathe in this clean pure air, visualize and feel air enter your nose and circulate up through the sinus cavity, to the top of your head, and down the back of your spinal column. As you end the inhalation, image the air circulating throughout your entire body.
Now, as you exhale, visualize that the air leaving your body is dirty, hazy air, which symbolizes all your stressors, frustrations, and toxins throughout your mind and body. With each breath you take, allow the clean fresh air to enter and circulate and invigorate your body, while the expulsion of the dirty air helps rid your body of its stress and tension.
Repeat this breathing cycle for five to ten minutes. As you repeat this cycle of breathing clouds, you may notice as the body becomes more relaxed through the release of stress and tension that the visual color of the air exhaled begins to change from black, to gray, perhaps even an off-white, a symbolic vision of complete relaxation.
Energy breathing is a way to vitalize your body, not only by taking in air through your nose or mouth, but in effect, breathing through your whole body as well. In essence, your body becomes like a big lung taking in air and circulating it throughout your entire body.
There are three phases of this exercise and you can do this technique either sitting or lying down. First get comfortable allowing your shoulders to relax. If you choose to sit, try to keep your legs straight. Now, as you breathe in, imagine that there is a circular hole at the top (crown) of your head, like a dolphin. As the air enters your lungs, visualize energy in the form of a beam of light, entering the top of your head. Bring the energy down, from the crown of your head to your abdomen as you inhale. As you exhale, allow the energy to leave through the top of your head. Repeat this five to ten times, trying to coordinate your breathing with the visual flow of energy. As you continue to bring the energy down to your stomach area, allow the light to reach all the inner parts of your upper body. When you feel comfortable with this first phase, you are ready to move on to the second phase.
Now, imagine that in the center of each foot, there is a circular hole that energy can flow in and out of. Again think of energy being like a beam of light. Concentrating on only your lower extremities, allow the flow of energy to move up from your feet into your abdomen as you inhale from your diaphragm. Repeat this five to ten times, trying to coordinate your breathing with the flow of energy.
Finally, as you continue to bring the energy up into your stomach area, allow the light to reach all the inner parts of your lower body. Once you feel you have this coordination between your breathing and the visual flow of energy with your lower extremities, begin to combine the movement of energy from both the top of your head and your feet, bringing the energy to the center of your body as you inhale air from your diaphragm. Then, as you exhale, allow the flow of energy to reverse the direction from which it came. Repeat this for ten to twenty times. Each time you move the energy through your body feel each body region, each muscle and organ and each cell become energized. At first it may seem difficult to visually coordinate the movement of energy coming from opposite ends of your body, but with practice, this will come very easily.
One summer day while grocery shopping, I ran into a former student of mine, Tom, now a lieutenant in the Navy. His conversation reminded me just how useful belly breathing can really be.
“You know, I used to think that all that breathing stuff you taught us in class was a crock,” said Tom, with a smile on his face. “But I don’t anymore!”
Peering over a pyramid of apples, I inquired, “What changed your mind?”
“It was about a week before graduation, right, and I’m packing to move to Florida with my wife, to start flight school. Did I tell you she was eight months pregnant? OK, so I’m packing these boxes in the basement and Kathy tells me she’s started going into labor. Not exactly good timing, know what I mean?”
Tom takes a step closer, grabbing an apple off the pyramid.
“Yup, you could say that my life was beyond the optimal stress point right about then. So here I am rushing to get Kathy to the hospital, but low and behold, we get in the car only to find we have a flat tire. No problem, I tell her. Take a few deep breaths. I’ll have this fixed in a jiffy.
“So now we’re in the car headed to the hospital and guess what? Another flat tire, except this time we have no spare. I could go off to get help, but I can’t leave my wife alone in the car. So you can only guess what happened.
“Man, that breathing stuff really worked. I kept telling her to take a deep breath, keep breathing, slow and deep, from the stomach, it will be all right. I was breathing right along with her. I’m not sure who it helped more, me or her. What an event! So now I’m the proud father of a little baby boy, Jonathan.”
“Congratulations,” I said, extending my hand.
“Thanks! You know you always hear about babies being born in the back seat of a car, but I never thought mine would be one of them. And now, I’m doing that belly breathing technique every day.”
It is said that the soul enters the body with the first breath and each breath after invigorates the spirit. Remember to breathe—from the belly!