Breathing 101

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“Learn how to exhale” has always been my #1 tip as a breathing instructor.

In the practice of deep breathing, your inhalation can only be as good as your exhalation.

Extending exhalations for as long as you comfortably can and learning what muscles are involved is a great way to build awareness.

A purposeful exhalation requires a gentle pressure. Our abdominal muscles come into play, first automatically and then through our deliberate efforts. Practicing emptying the lungs in this way, without strain or struggle, is a good way to build strength in our breathing apparatus, slow down the pace of our normal breathing, and build lung capacity.

When we exhale, our diaphragm muscle relaxes but our abdominal muscles are working in order to expel the stale air from our lungs. Most of the time we are unaware of the role the abdominal muscles play in our breathing, but with practice we become engaged in this activity. In deep breathing exercises it is good to consciously work with our abdominal muscles in order to comfortably squeeze out as much air as possible from our lungs.

Learn how to release the abdominal muscles in a wave-like motion and the inhale will take care of itself.

Our respiratory system works by way of a vacuum effect. By releasing all the effort that was required for exhalation, the air automatically comes flowing back into your body; however, this releasing motion requires practice.

Trying to take in deep, full breaths without letting go is counterproductive and creates tension. Full, yet relaxed inhalations require good letting-go skills. I know none of us normally think of letting go as a skill, but it really is something that we can participate in and become skillful at doing. Think of it this way: Relaxing after a long day is something we gradually work toward through an unwinding process. It doesn’t just happen when we sit down and stop. It is the same with the letting go motion of inhalation.

The fact that it happens in only a few seconds actually makes it a bit more challenging, and this is why it takes practice. A good inhalation is not a tanking up of air but a gradual motion of release that results in a satisfying fullness. By learning how to exhale well you become better at breathing deeply.

Working with your breath this way can help you free your body of tension. Many of us are unaware of the tensions that are with us 24/7. Our breathing is designed to help us release any tensions that have become so much a part of us that we no longer sense their presence.

A long, slow even, relaxed and steady exhalation and a wave like release is deep breathing at its finest.

Feelings Old and New

I recently saw two people bump into each other. One person knocked into the other as they passed on the sidewalk.  The person who was not paying attention immediately started to apologize profusely; but it was obvious the moment their bodies made contact, that the person who had been knocked into was transported back to another place and time. His face and body energy were in no way related to the actual moment because the bump was not that harsh but his face was full of fury and frustration. Poor perceptions, unresolved anger and pain are the cause of many, many misunderstandings and can be so potentially damaging.

It’s safe to say that all of us have had our ability to perceive, compromised in some way. Have you ever found yourself thinking about the past and saying to yourself, “Why did I over-react?” Or, have you ever been in a conflict with someone that seemed irreconcilable? The reason for times such as these is that somewhere, at sometime in the past, important emotions were blocked; it often happens from childhood conditioning. Family patterns of behavior often deem certain emotions ugly, wrong and unwelcome. If in the past, feeling afraid or angry proved to be futile, or worse, had the potential to bring on punitive words or physical punishment; well then, the price of allowing ourselves to feel was just too high.

So what happens, if in the past, we were frightened, angry or sad, and were forced to suppress those feelings? Well, this is what I would call trauma. Traumas are not only horrific moments in life. An emotional trauma is any past incident in which you were forced to bypass your feelings.

The following is an example: A child is running in the playground, falls, and severely scraps a knee; it is frightening and painful. If no one empathizes and validates the fear and sadness; no one offers the hug and the soothing words; or if, worse yet, the child is in any way berated or chastised for having fallen; then the fear, anger and sadness are buried. In fact, it’s commonplace for a child who has had an upsetting experience at school, to immediately play out the emotions once within the safer, more nurturing environment of home. I’m a mother, I know.

The consequence of emotional trauma is that it causes all kinds of problems in the present. I have been working with people long enough to know that any interpersonal, irresolvable conflict, occurring in your present, is a repeat of an unresolved, unprocessed trauma from the past.

The problem with suppressed emotions is that they seriously limit our ability to be fully present. The words psychologist Frank Hannah MS,  give more weight to the theory when he writes, “The feeling brain stores the memories, acquired knowledge and beliefs acquired over a lifetime, holding them in readiness to influence, if not determine all of our thoughts, behaviors, feelings and emotions.” So the feeling brain’s memories can and often do, override the present realities.

When emotions are overwhelming and arguments turn messy and frustrating, it is an indication that one or all parties are not fully in the present. The circumstances and people are new, but the feelings they stir up are old. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Somehow, the old, unresolved conflict shows up again as an opportunity to process and heal.

So, when conflict arises in the present what can we do to rectify? First, you need to get quiet and ask yourself, “When in the past did I feel similarly?” You then, need to go back and replay the scene; only this time, you get to express everything you felt. The whole healing process can be done through visualization. Once the suppressed fear, anger, and sadness have been expressed, it is very important to follow with comfort and relief. Just like the child who fell and needs comfort, I advise my students to visualize someone who can offer empathy. Bring one of more individuals into the scene, and allow yourself to be comforted; immerse yourself in that comfort, and actually feel the relief in your body. Imagining allows the body to feel whatever the mind creates and your muscles, bones, cells and systems are all affected as if it were actually happening.

The principle of mind/body oneness has been studied and documented in the work of Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. In a recent radio interview, as a way of explaining the oneness of the mind/body, Ms. Langer spoke of a study done with actors. An actor playing a character, who is completely and utterly immersed in the role, becomes not only akin to the character in outward appearance but also altered on a physiological level (i.e. blood pressure, heart rate). The actor is not ‘watching himself’ be the character, but rather has merged completely with the role; the visualization technique works in the same, exact way. The mind believes, and the body feels and responds.

Discovering where the emotional conflicts are in our past is the key to resolving our present. The word resolve has its roots in the Latin verb resolvere, meaning to loosen. I find the definition particularly accurate when applied to healing the body. The repressed emotions make us tight and stressed, and by resolving the past, we literally loosen ourselves. It’s a shame to let stressful times from the past contaminate our present opportunities for connection.

Once we process any blocked emotions from the past, our ability to perceive is restored, all of our feelings are available to us, our breath flows freely and, we are finally returned to our senses.

OUR FIRST BREATH

Feelings are the energy that fuels our thoughts; without them I doubt our brains could function well. It’s plausible to say that we have feelings about everything, and that those feelings spur our thoughts. For instance, the question of what causes a newborn to take its first breath is still being debated; but I believe the answer is, an emotion. Wikipedia says, that “when a newborn is expelled from the birth canal, its central nervous system reacts to the sudden change in temperature and environment” and this causes them to take their first breath. A reaction is a sensation that causes a feeling. If feelings caused us to take our first breath, is it too far fetched to assume that feelings are the reason we are living?