Most of the time throughout our days, weeks, months and years, we take breathing for granted. We don’t need to think about it much to survive, since we breathe automatically, even in our sleep.
Over the past seven or so years of practicing yoga and Pilates, I’ve become aware of both the quality of my breath and where it is in my body. I realized that for most of my life, my breathing came from my chest and was pretty shallow. I started noticing that when I would get stressed out, sometimes it felt like I was barely breathing at all. This type of shallow chest breathing – or worse, holding the breath – signals to the brain that it’s time to go into fight or flight mode during a tense situation. Fight or flight is an ancient instinct that served our caveman ancestors well, but is inappropriate for the modern stressors that we encounter, like being late and stuck in traffic, speaking in front of people, or your child making a scene in public. All of the cortisol and adrenaline that pump through our bodies in those situations, with no physical outlet, can make us feel a little nuts. Focusing on slowing and deepening our breathing with yoga breathing is a tool we can use anytime, anywhere to shut down that adrenaline response.
In yoga I learned deep, calming belly breathing, and in Pilates I practiced lateral breathing, an energizing breath that focuses on ribcage expansion and contraction. After classes, I felt like my lung capacity was increased – I knew how to breathe better! But knowing how and remembering to use that knowledge in everyday life are two different things, and I would quickly revert back to my old ways until the next class. It’s taken much, much longer to make focusing on my breathing a habit and a valuable tool to calm myself and stay rooted in the present moment.
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My yoga teacher at Bloom Retreat in Walnut Creek says, “We practice in here for out there.” It’s easy to focus on our breath in the peaceful sanctuary of a yoga class, and much more difficult out in the real world. Recently though, I’ve observed a change. A few times, I’ve caught myself involuntarily slowing down my breathing when I began to feel anxious and overwhelmed. It’s like this skill I’ve been practicing in classes for years has finally made a permanent connection in my brain. And it works! Within a minute, I feel less like reacting (with anger, frustration, sadness, etc.) and more like accepting what’s happening, and either trying to find a solution or just calming myself down.
Raising little kids, it’s easy to feel like life is one big fire drill. If we look at it rationally, we can sometimes see that the majority of the little things we worry about constantly really are little. Where our rational minds fail to convince us, though, I truly believe that our breath can.
I find the yogic ujjayi breath to be the most effective style to calm my mind while simultaneously helping me to focus on the present moment. Ujjayi involves constricting the back of the throat so the breath takes on a soft audible sound that yoga teachers compare to the sound of the ocean, or, less romantically, to Darth Vader from Star Wars. Either way, it’s amazing how soothing it is. Check out the Chopra Center’s information on ujjayi breath to learn more about yoga breathing techniques.