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Breathing Lessons

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Breathing Lessons
Eliminating Performance Anxiety.                          Rolf Sovik




B
           reath training is an integral                                THE DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATH
           part of yoga as well as a
           means of creating a more
           balanced, healthy lifestyle.            .
                                                   ~



Practicing relaxed, diaphragmatic
breathing is refreshing and restful,
and creates a sense of well-being. It
calms the nervous system, helps pre-
vent psychosomatic disturbances, in-
cluding panic episodes, and centers
attention. Because we are always
breathing, breath awareness is a self-
management tool that is useful even
during the busiest times of the day.
   For students of yoga, breath train-
ing is an indispensable preparation
for the proper performance of asana
and pranayama and for deepening
meditation. It involves learning to
recognize the sensations that accom-
pany diaphragmatic breathing and
gradually becoming accustomed to
breathing with the diaphragm. Unfor-
tunately, beginning students some-
times become anxious about whether                 During inhalation the diaphragm          When the diaphragm relaxes during
                                                    contracts downward and the              exhalation the abdomen contracts.
they are breathing correctly. They are
                                                         abdomen expands.
disconcerted by a heightened aware-
ness of breathing and may even
abandon their efforts before experi-          tions about how to breathe are really      in taking in air in small gasps. The
encing any benefit of the training. So        questions about which muscles to use       isolated use of these muscles for
let's take a look at what breath train-       in order to expand the lungs and           breathing, called clavicular breathing,
ing actually is and explore ways of           draw air into them. Emptying the           is most commonly seen in people
eliminating the performance aILxiety          lungs of the carbon dioxide that accu-     who have lung illnesses that limit
that may initially accompany this new         mulates there is less of a problem-        their ability to draw a deep breath.
awareness of how we breathe.                  the natural elasticity of the lungs nor-      The bands of muscle (the inter-
                                              mally takes care of this, with only a      costal muscles) that lie between the
What AreWe Training                           little help from the muscles. This is      ribs can also be used for breathing.
the Breathto Do?        .",                   why you exhale as you sink into your       Because these muscles surround the
  It surprises many people to learn           favorite chair-it's easier.                lungs, it might seem natural to
that the lungs are not muscles but act           We have choices regarding the           breathe with them. In fact, after
more like sponges. Without aid, they          muscles we use for breathing. The          strenuous exercise nothing is more
cannot move air in and out of the             muscles of the neck and upper torso,       satisfying than to breathe deeply
body but need to be stretched by              by themselves, bring a rather small        with the mouth open and the chest
muscles around them. This fact lies at        amount of air into the lungs. Breath-      heaving. In normal circumstances,
the heart of breath instmction: Ques-         ing with these muscles alone results       chest or thoracic breathing is consid-
                                                          ".

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 erably less dramatic-the       rib cage    breathing that lead to physical or               Begin your observations by feeling
 simply rises and falls with inhalation     emotional tension. This is really what        the two phases of breath over and
 and exhalation.                            breath training is about-awareness,           over again-the flow of the outwar,
    Although there is a certain logic to    change, and contentment. If all goes          breath followed by the flow of the
 breathing with the chest muscles-          well, a healthy improvement in                inward breath. After consciously ex-
 that is where the lungs are, after         breathing habits will follow. But             periencing your breath for some
 all-it is harmful to use these mus-        sometimes the question "Am I breath-          time, just as it is, you can gradually
 cles for everyday breathing. Breath-       ing right'" creates an obstacle. Perfor-      turn to more mechanical matters.
 ing primarily with chest muscles           mance anxiety about breathing can            There is no hurry.
 makes breathing much too big a pro-        draw attention away from the breath.            The best posture for sensing the
 duction. The effect is to arouse your      The focus on breath training is re-          flow of the breath is the crocodile
 sympathetic nervous system and to          placed by a focus on reducing anx-           pose. When you are lying prone on
 maintain levels of tension that sap        ious feelings. This shift is self-defeat-    vour stomach, with arms folded at
 energy and dramatically increase           ing, leading away from real progress.        ;bout a 45" angle above your shoul-
your susceptibility to emotional dis-                                                    ders, your body will naturally begin
 turbances. Chest breathing is a subtle                   A
                                            Overcomingnxiety                             to breathe diaphragmatically. Use the
but major cause of physical and                It's normal to experience a certain       crocodile pose to counteract the nor-
emotional distress.                         amount of nervousness about observ-          mal abdominal tension that arises
   Elements of both clavicular and tho-     ing and working with breath. After all,      whenever you are nervous. It will
racic breathing are found in normal         breathing is a life-sustaining process.      automatically get you started toward
breathing, but the muscle naturally in-     Sometimes yoga teachers inadvertent-         a more natural breathing style. Even
tended for expanding the lungs is the       ly fet;,d students' fears by giving too      advanced students find tension in
diaphragm. The diaphragm is an in-          rigid a portrayal of the "correct"           the abdomen by the end of the day.
verted, dome-shaped muscle that lies        method of breatl).ing. Pressure to "do       The crocodile pose offers a chance
horizontally inside the torso, dividing     it right" can undermine confidence           to unblock the breath and release
it into two separate chambers-the           and patience.                                pent-up tension. If the posture is un-
chest cavity and the abdominal/pelvic          If it makes you nervous to pay at-        comfortable for you, try stretching
cavity. The chest contains the lungs        tention to your breathing, you're            your arms out more fully and use a
and heart; the lower chamber contains       not alone. Here are some sugges-             small pillow to support your chest.
the organs of digestion, assimilation,      tions for building confidence and               The corpse pose Cshavasana) com-
elimination, and reproduction. When         making breath work enjoyable and             plements the crocodile posture. After
 the diaphragm relaxes, the abdominal       pleasant.                                    a few minutes on your stomach, roll
organs can rise, increasing the height                                                   over to your back, using a thin cush-
of the dome. Any movement in the di-        You  arealready           .
                                                            breathing.This is ob-        ion to support your neck and head.
aphragm affects both the lungs and          vious. You are alive, after all. Yet         You will find this posture relaxing
the abdominal organs.                       after an intensive lesson on breath-         and excellent for breath awareness,
   When the muscle fibers of the di-        ing you might suspect that your              but maintain attention on your
aphragm contract, they pull the di-         current breathing style is doing you         breathing or you may fall asleep.
aphragm down. This has two notice-          more harm than good. Fortunately,
able results. Air comes into the lungs      the task in breath training is not to                          o
                                                                                         Noticethe movement f the torsoas you
and, at the same time, the abdominal        learn breathing      from scratch-           breathe. . When your breath tlows
organs are compressed downward,             breathing is instinctive. The task is        out, your upper abdomen contracts,
pressing out against the abdomen. In        simply to learn to improve the               and when your breath flows in, your
diaphragmatic breathing, the air flows      quality of your breathing, which             upper abdomen expands.To gain the
in and out naturally, and the abdomen       will improve the quality of your             most from breath training it is im-
expands and contracts with each             life. When you breathe better, you           portant to anchor this connection
breath. If the abdominal wall is tense      feel better.                                 deeply in your mind. Notice the con-
(out of bad habit or emotional tension)        During breath training, recognize         trast between the corpse and croco-
it inhibits this process, and the body      that you are shaping your breath             dile postures. During the inhalation
finds alternatives. The result is usually   rather than changing it. Breath is a         the back rises in the crocodile pose,
shallow breathing or chest breathing.       flow. It is flowing now. It will con-        while in the corpse pose the ab-
   A well-qualified teacher can help        tinue to flow. To learn natural, dia-        domen rises. When you are either
students learn to relax the abdomen,        phragmatic breathing, start by expe-         sitting or standing, the motion of tht
strengthen the diaphragm, and use it        riencing the flow of your breath             abdomen is less prominent; you will
for breathing. He or she can also           without trying to make any changes           experience movement at the sides
make students aware of disruptions in       at all.                                      and to some degree in the back.
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When you are doing hatha postures,              cause we wonder if we are doing it           counts is the experience. As you prac-
the feel of the breath is constantly            right. For most people, two to four          tice, bring into mind whatever is use-
changing as you stretch. This all               weeks of twice-daily practice is about       ful and let the rest go.
happens naturally and is not some-              what it takes to get the hang of it-so          If you become very anxious about
thing you have to work on. But if               don't expect yourself to master it in        attending to your breathing, float
you expect your breathing to always             two to four days. It may take longer         and let time pass. When fears in-
feel the same, it will be confusing.            to feel absolutely natural about what        crease, they become beliefs and
   Eventually, your diaphragm will              you have learned-perhaps              six    seem to justify themselves: "I can't
become stronger and natural breath-             months to a year. It doesn't matter          do it (fear) because I am so afraid"
ing will become effortless. (Yoga               how long it takes-the practice itself        (an interesting but illogical justifica-
postures and a sandbag contoured to             is enjoyable and worth the effort.           tion). If you're using an instructional
fit your abdomen are helpful in                    While you are learning, remember          tape, you can listen with your eyes
strengthening the diaphragm.) Soon              that you don't need to make anyone           open. Do it over and over until you
you will be breathing deeply and                breath perfect. This is a wonderful          feel safe. Set reasonable goals. Just
smoothly, without pauses or jerks in            disco;rery. Each breath is followed          lie down for a few minutes and feel
your breath.                                    by an"'"other.So if the feeling of the       the flow of your breathing. Like
   Whenever you sense that you may              breath you are currently observing is        someone who is floating on water,
be trying too hard, consciously re-             less than satisfying, accept it for what     quiet yourself and float as you watch
duce your effort. Do this at least              it is; then experience the next breath.      your breath. Let time pass. Have no
once during every practice session.             It's just around the corner.                 expectation that anything should be
Let your body breathe. You are like                Few people have had practical in-         happening. Little by little you will
someone sitting along the bank of a             structions ~bout how to breathe in a         find you are enjoying the experience
river watching the water flow. Your             relaxed way. Most of us know little          and that your breath has become
breath is like the flowing water. You           about the anatomy or physiology of           serene.
can relax as you watch it flow by.              breathing when we start our training.
                                                In order to feel confident, you will           Payoff
                                                                                             The
Expedsomeperformance
                                 .
                        anxietyandgive
yourselfplentyof time to learn. We all
feel nervous when we first learn
                                                need to learn enough about the me-
                                                chanics of breathing to satisfy your in-
                                                tellectual curiosity, but most of this in-
                                                                                               The rewards of this training are
                                                                                             quite remarkable. You will find that
                                                                                             you have a tool to maintain your
about   diaphragmatic    breathing    be-       formation is only background-what            equilibrium in situations where you
                                                                                             used to become tense and uncom-
                                                                                             fortable. Your everyday level of in-
                        TWO POSES        TRAINING
                                 FORBREATH                                                   ternal tension will lessen, allowing
                                                                                             you to move your body and concen-
                                                                                             trate your mind with greater ease. As
                                                                                             you continue on the path of yoga,
                                                                                             diaphragmatic breathing will serve as
                                                                                             a foundation for many other prac-


    ~:'~~         The crocodile pose releases abdominal tension and
                                                                                             tices. And when fears seem over-
                                                                                             whelming in the course of daily liv-
                                                                                             ing, you will have an internal friend
                                                                                             to comfort your mind and reduce the
                         facilitates diaphragmatic breathing.
                                                                                             burden of your heart. All in all, as
                                                                                             you improve the quality of your
                                                                                             breathing, you will improve the qual-
                                                                                             ity of your life.

                                                                                             Rolf Sovik. Psy.D., bolds a doctorate in
                                                                                             clinical psycbology. His doctoral project
                                                                                             e:\;amined tbe effects of hreath training
                                                                                             in tbe treatment of panic disorder. He
                                                                                             bas practiced and taugbt yoga for over
                                                                                             twenty years.



    The corpse pose is deeply relaxing and excellent for practicing breath awareness.

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