Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Breath Of Life

I'm convinced that my yoga teacher's true mantra (not the private one she isn't allowed to share with us) is "Breathe!" In various permutations, she repeats this order dozens of times each class as we move from pose to pose -- remember to breathe, watch your breath as it moves in and out of your body, focus, breathe in, breathe out. Although you may think that breathing is a normal, automatic function and no one needs to remind you to do it, the fact is that many of us inadvertently hold our breath when we tense up or exercise. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to make your way through a stressful situation, and awareness of your breath helps you get the most out of any physical activity. Actor Paul Sorvino wrote a book a number of years ago about how he cured his asthma with breathing techniques. If you had to choose just one thing to do to improve your health, it would be to pay more attention to your breath, observes Andrew L. Rubman, ND, hatha yoga master and contributing editor. Breathing techniques can help you relax, give you more energy and improve your overall well-being.

For Stress Relief
We all want to be productive, but most of us push too hard and put too much pressure on ourselves, warns Dr. Rubman. By burning the candle at both ends, instead of achieving our lofty goals, we end up succumbing to stress. His recommendation? Take a deep breath. Clear out the stale air, and replace it with a fresh stock of new, revitalizing oxygen. Dr. Rubman told me that by manipulating the frequency and depth of your breathing, you can bring about profound psychological changes in your body. Deep breathing quiets you so you can find the calm at your center. In particular, Dr. Rubman advises mastering the basic breathing practices of pranayama yoga and practicing them on a regular basis. The more you practice, the more automatic your breathing responses will become as you move through your daily life, notes Dr. Rubman. Soon you will find yourself taking stressful experiences in better stride, greeting them with deep, balancing breaths instead of shallow, panicky gulps. To get in the habit of conscious breathing, Dr. Rubman suggests placing notes to yourself around the places you spend the most time, reminding you to breathe. Post them on frequently visited strategic locations, such as the computer, the kitchen cabinet, the bathroom mirror or the clock in the car. When you glance to see how long you've spent sitting in a traffic jam, for example, the note will remind you to center yourself and calm your jangling nerves by taking a slow, deep, intentional breath.

For Physical Well-Being
Of course, stress is not just harmful psychologically -- it also has a direct negative impact on your physical health. Anxiety and tension are contributing factors to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders and a variety of other ills. Chronically elevated levels of the notorious stress hormone cortisol raise blood pressure and heart rate and contribute to the accumulation of belly fat that places you at a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes. According to Jeff Migdow, MD, director of prana yoga teacher training at The Open Center in New York City and author of Breathe In, Breathe Out (Time-Life), controlling your breath helps you gain more control over yourself in body as well as in mind. Mindful breathing protects against stress as well as stress-related diseases.

While we all breathe all day everyday, most breathing is not done right. According to Dr. Rubman, if you don't breathe correctly, you may hyperventilate and become lightheaded. Dr. Migdow notes that most people routinely breathe shallowly instead of deeply, utilizing only a tiny portion of their lung capacity and building up carbon dioxide. To relax the center of the brain, Dr. Migdow recommends that you begin by taking a deep breath. Always inhale through your nose, not your mouth. Breathe in slowly and fully, and be aware of your breath as it gradually expands your abdomen, then rib cage, and finally the upper portion of your lungs. Exhale through the mouth, trying to exhale for twice as long as you inhale, for this is the relaxing element. Dr. Rubman uses the following imagery to describe full breathing: Allow the breath to descend to the base of the chest like sand beginning to fill a bag. Feel the base of the lungs fill and uniformly press down on the abdomen. As the sand rises in the bag, the ribs move from the base of the chest to the shoulders like bucket handles swinging up on the buckets laid on their sides. As the lungs near capacity, the shoulders rise and swing slightly back at the peak of inhalation. Exhalation is simply the reverse process -- as if someone made a video of the inhalation and rolled it backward at half speed. For every second counted as you breathe in, aim for double the count as you breathe out. It's impossible to breathe deeply and still feel stress, says Dr. Migdow. The more that you breathe consciously, the greater the benefit. Start by devoting two minutes each hour to deep breathing, and you'll be more relaxed and productive the whole day.


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