Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Twisty Tuesdays - Pranayama (Breath)

One of the most challenging skills to acquire in yoga is mastering the breath, or pranayama. Your breath connects you to every body system you have, but most notably the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. How does this relate to wellness? The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls the fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) controls your relaxed state.

Try to recall the last time you had a scare or where startled. Your heart jumped up into your throat, your pulse raced and your breathing changed. Perhaps you gasped. This is the SNS kicking in. It has a wonderful purpose: to keep you alive in an emergency. As such, turning on the SNS and turning off the PSNS changes what is going on in your body. The SNS raises your blood pressure, redirects blood from your digestive system to your brain, your pupils dilate, your breathing rate increases.

We are going to focus on the breathing rate in this Twisty Tuesday (I promise, there is yoga in here). Short shallow breathing triggers your SNS. It puts the PSNS on the back burner and takes over. Americans, and westerners in general, take short, shallow "chest breaths" all the time. We live in a constant state of "fight or flight." Our organ systems are put under tremendous stress in this environment. The digestive system gets less blood and slows, our blood pressure is constantly elevated and we get headaches.

How do you arrest the cycle? Deep belly breathing. The ancient yogi's knew this and developed Yogic Breathing or The Three Part Breath. Their lives were not without stress: no grocery stores, no clothing stores, if you wanted to eat or be clothed, you were responsible for doing something about satisfying that need. There was no Valium, but they were able to control their breath. So, they did.

The yogic breath is easy to learn and immediately shuts off the overdrive of the SNS. It is easiest learned laying down, but can be practiced sitting up, standing, driving, etc. Read this through a couple of times and then try it on your own! To teach your children, have them lay down and read them a story. I recommend a poetic or relaxing story: The Giving Tree 40th Anniversary Edition Book with CD or A Child's Book of Poems are good choices and non-arousing as are CD's aimed at relaxation for children.

  • Begin by getting comfortable: laying down, sitting reclined, standing.
  • Notice your breath. Notice the way the air feels moving in and out of your nose.
  • Close your eyes. Close your mouth. Place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth.
  • Wiggle your fingers and toes just a bit to be sure they are relaxed.
  • Place your hands on your belly.
  • Begin your first inhale and concentrate on filling the belly with air. Physically inflate your belly: this forces you to breath using only your diaphragm, the way your children breath when they are sleeping.
  • Exhale fully and draw your navel into your spine.
  • Do this 3 times.
  • Place your hands on your ribs.
  • Inhale, filling the belly and continue to inhale causing your ribs to expand.
  • Exhale, first focusing on deflating the ribs, then pulling the navel into your spine.
  • Do this 3 times.
  • Place your hands on your upper chest, just under your collarbones.
  • Inhale, filling the belly, expanding the ribs and finally, stretching the sternum.
  • Exhale, releasing the sternum, deflating the ribs and pulling your navel into your spine.
  • Release your arms to your sides and continue to breath this way as long as you please!

Teaching children a breathing exercise like this is difficult. It is possible to have them put their hands on their tummies and feel the expansion and deflation of their bellies, but beyond that, it is more important to teach them to relax. Reading a quiet story or listening to a CD while they lay down are what I recommend. Both parents and children will benefit from this state of relaxation and when times get stressful, the Three Part Breath can be used to help diffuse the reflexes of the SNS and allow your PSNS to take over, leading to better health and overall wellness!


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