A Sigh of Relief

February 8, 2010

I already knew weeks ago that I wanted to make this newsletter about breathing, yet I kept putting off the actual task of writing it and now I’m glad I did. Here’s why:

Last week, I took an unexpected trip to the Kripalu yoga retreat center in the Berkshire Mountains and discovered it to be the perfect setting for me to practice what I would be preaching. I arrived cell phone and computer free, anxious to slow down, relax and breathe.

Yoga is without a doubt one of the best ways to get in touch with your breathing. The sage, Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, talked about the role that the breath plays in one’s journey to self-realization. He describes 8 steps of yoga of which Pranayama is the 4th. Prana means “breath” or “life force” and ayama means “control”. Another yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar teaches: “Prana is the life force which permeates both the individual as well as the universe at all levels…Prana, the breath, and the mind are inextricably linked to each other.” While on the one hand, breathing is automatic, breathing with intention helps us to attain a healthier state of being.

During my very first yoga class, many years ago, I suddenly felt what it means to breath deeply and realized that I had been holding my breath for practically my entire life! I remember having a light-bulb moment – I’m a grown woman and don’t know how to breathe? How can that be? With this new-found awareness I promised myself I’d do better but even now, I have to remind myself daily to breathe properly.

One of my all time favorite ways to incorporate this practice is the “Sigh of Relief”; a deep breath in, filling the belly and entire diaphragm, then an audible “ahhh” or “mmm”… on the exhale. I do it anywhere- walking down the noisy crowded streets of New York City, it is a wonderfully effective stress reliever. It is so effective, in fact, that Roger Jahnke devotes an entire page to it in his book “The Healer Within”.

As helpful as yoga is for breathing, it is obviously not a requirement. Simple awareness is the key to making positive changes in your breathing habits. Pay attention to situations where you find yourself holding your breath or not breathing deeply enough; this tends to be when you are angry, anxious or both. Whether stuck in traffic or dealing with a hard day at work, breathing slowly and deeply helps to immediately calm your nerves. Proper breathing aids digestion, insomnia, headaches and a host of other health issues.

Lastly, some advice for developing a habit of good breathing. Copy down one of these breath-related idioms and post it in a place where you will see it often. It will remind you to breathe deep and soon you will be in the habit of breathing better all the time.

*Breathe Easy
*Breathe (new) Life Into Something
*Catch Your Breath
*A Breath of Fresh Air
*Just Breathe

Putting it Into Practice

Which brings me to the second reason I’m glad I procrastinated. I arrived home from Kripalu energized and vowing to get back to a regular yoga practice – and was lucky enough to happen upon a class just around the block taught by a wonderful woman named Jennifer Edwards. In addition to being a yoga instructor, she is a writer, dancer, reiki practitioner and teacher who specializes in stress management and self-care.

Jennifer is the first yoga instructor who truly visualized for me the best way to breathe fully. In a guided exercise, she asked me to inhale deeply, slowing the breath to fill my belly and then expanding to fill my entire chest out to the edges of my rib cage. Bringing awareness to this part of my body, made me acutely conscious of just how big and full the lungs should be when you take an adequate breath in.

Something else to remember on the topic of breathing is air quality and the unsung heroes that fill our air with oxygen, plants! Try to get outside often, in the woods, a park or anywhere with a lot of green. It also helps to fill your home with house plants, as they are beautiful and natural air purifiers.

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