Throughout history, breathing has been mastered as a way to heal illnesses, to add years to one's life, for deeper levels of intimacy and sexual union, as well as a form of self-discovery and communion with the divine. Sounds like good stuff, huh? Well why aren't we experiencing more of this? We have been breathing everyday since we were born! It's the most natural thing we do.
Well, you can "just breathe" and maintain your basic life functions. But if you develop the skills of Conscious Breathing, you can tap into enormous powers that lead to unlimited benefits: physical vitality, emotional stability, mental clarity, and spiritual attainment. Let's start with some fundamental principles and basic exercises to examine this form of breathing.
Let It Out Before we do that, I am going to ask you to do something that is so alien to most of us, but has enormous power; something so radical, that it might frighten you; something so revolutionary and subversive in our modern media-influenced culture that it could change the world. Dare to read on???? Here we go.... Relax your belly!
Yes, you heard correctly. Relaxing your belly is crucial in getting the most out of each breath, and will improve your health and quality of life. Try it. You may like it. If you feel nervous to actually do this in public—at the gym or at the club, for instance—do it in the privacy of your own home.
Don't get me wrong. It is essential that we strengthen and tone the abdominal muscles. And, yes, it is nice to look at a well-defined middle. But here's the thing: Many of us were taught at a young age that having a flat stomach is essential for our happiness. The media bombards us with images of beautiful young men and women with perfect abs. So we started holding in our guts, creating a lot of tension that we never release. This habitual tension has far-reaching consequences.
First of all, tension implies that we are constantly engaging our muscles. This uses up energy and puts an enormous strain on the body. And we wonder why we are often so tired! By releasing our bellies we are releasing deep layers of stress, which leads to a more relaxed, integrated sense of well-being and allows us to use that energy for other things. This kind of tension is very different from being toned. If you do enough correct abdominal exercises, then there is no need to hold the tension to keep those muscles engaged. You can relax your muscles and still have a strong, toned middle. So keep up your ab workout, and then relax your belly!
Anatomy of Breath So now that you've relaxed your belly, let's take a look at what we actually do when we breathe. The most important part of the breath process is the diaphragm—a membrane that connects to the bottom ribs and runs horizontally through the body. When we exhale, this elastic membrane relaxes and rises towards our lungs. When we feel the need to take in air, the brain gives off a signal to the diaphragm to stretch down towards the pelvis, creating a larger space in the rib cage. This stretching of the diaphragm down towards the pelvis creates a vacuum. And as we know, a vacuum needs to be filled. Thus, the natural intake of air.
Here's where the tension of the belly comes in. If the belly is tense, then the diaphragm doesn't get to stretch freely. We don't get to breathe deeply enough and therefore don't maximize our intake of oxygen. So, most of us go through life taking shallow breaths and cheating ourselves of sufficient levels of oxygen, which as you know is essential for health, vitality, clarity, even happiness and fulfillment.
Alan Hymes, M.D., has said in Science of Breath that it is through our lower lungs that the most oxygen can be circulated into the bloodstream. By holding tension, we constrict the lower lungs and subsequently breathe mostly in our upper lungs, which aren't able to take in as much air. So, we have to work harder and faster with each breath. This rapid breathing puts the body on alert, firing up the nervous system to think that there is an emergency, moving the body into a state of stress. And this is happening all the time! This is the plight of living in our modern, urban world. The stress and stimulus of our lives affects the breath, which puts strain on the body, leading to burnout, depression, and even illness.
Basic Breath Exercise
So, let's practice a way of breathing that will create more flexibility in your diaphragm and belly. This will maximize your oxygen intake and allow the body to relax. Sit comfortably and take a few minutes to go within. Listen to your natural breath and let your belly relax with each breath. When you are ready, breathe out and exhale fully. You should notice that your belly goes inward towards your spine. Then let your diaphragm drop down towards your pelvis and feel the air pour in. You should notice that your belly expands and gets bigger. I suggest you breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. This is a great, general way to breathe, good for anything—working out, any cardio-vascular activity, as well as walking, cooking, hanging out. Take about fifteen minutes for this and try to do it at least three times a week. If you are having trouble feeling this in-and-out motion of the belly, then lie on your back or stomach and try it. Keep practicing this until it becomes a new habit, second nature.
1-2-4-8-8-4-2-1 Breath Exercise
Once you have mastered this new way of breathing, try the following exercise to develop a deeper level of flexibility and dexterity. Do this with a slow run or brisk walk. Try this as part of your workout. If you do this on a treadmill, choose a much slower speed than normal—no more than a pace of a 15-minute mile. This isn't about speed or endurance. It's about stretching and training the muscles necessary for deeper breathing. If you have any medical concerns, consult your doctor first. It is very important to listen to your body. If you are getting dizzy, slow down or stop immediately. Especially if you are on a treadmill.
Start off with about 5 minutes, and as you get comfortable with the exercise, extend the time. Start off running/walking with a normal, natural breath, focusing clearly on inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth, feeling the belly expanding on the inhale and contracting on the exhale.
Now, start listening to the rhythm of your steps in a four-count, where each step is one beat. 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. When you are comfortable with the rhythm, starting inhaling in a count of four (one inhale for every four steps) and exhale as well in a count of four. Do this for a while—inhale though your nose, exhale through your mouth. Then go to an eight-count. Eight steps for one inhale, eight steps for one exhale. Notice how you need to really stretch your diaphragm and abdominal muscles. Keep the breath low and deep. Then go back to a four-count. After a while, try a two-count. You will need to use more effort to keep up. The breath will be quicker and the movement of your belly faster. Then try a one-count. Inhale on one step, exhale on the next. Do this for a while and notice how you feel. Keep going up and down from eight to one and then back up to eight. When you are done, notice how you feel—physically, emotionally and mentally.
If you practice these two breath exercises on a regular basis, you will begin to gain more mastery of your breath and have the basic skills for more advanced breath techniques. You should feel the benefits in all areas of your life. I used this breath practice when I ran a marathon, and my friends on the sidelines at the 25-mile mark were shocked to see me smiling and dancing my way past them towards the finish line.
These tools are not only used to enhance health and vitality, but they also form the basis for attaining higher levels of emotional well being, personal fulfillment and mental agility. The basic principle of Conscious Breathing is that you want to get the most out of every breath. You have to breathe anyway, right? So why not get the most out of it? What a great metaphor for life!
About Joe Weston: Joe Weston is an international workshop facilitator and personal coach. Born and educated in New York, Joe lived in Amsterdam for 17 years and now lives in California. He is committed to helping others embody spirituality and with his workshop, RESPECTFUL CONFRONTATION, supports others in their journey towards personal fulfillment and empowerment. Joe brings a wealth of insight to his work based on many teachings, including Tai Chi Chuan and various spiritual traditions—plus his experience in theater and various organizational trainings. He also volunteers for the Liberation Prison Project, teaching Buddhism to inmates. For more info: www.joeweston.com.