The Enlightening Mat: Benefits of Deep Breathing

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There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. 
Then, there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.
- Rumi

Working with my breath was something I resisted for a long time, until I realized that I actually didn't know how to breathe using my diaphragm and hired a breathing coach. After my experience with this lovely woman, breathing became one of my main avenues for building self-awareness. Though this post focuses on my Bikram yoga practice, abdominal breathing techniques are something that you can use while sitting at your desk, in a meeting, while driving/commuting, watching television, before falling asleep, during meditation, knitting, working in the garden, cooking, etc.

In fact the other day, I used abdominal breathing to ease an upsetting event. After scurrying away from an angry stranger, instead of counting to ten, I breathed in and out to a count of ten at least ten times through my nose using my belly and noticed every physical sensation during the process. This simple act calmed my heart rate, slowed down my racing thoughts, and released my feelings of anxiety.

Conscious belly breathing is one way you can fulfill a need for safety under the most difficult of circumstances. Even modern medicine is teaching patients to do deep breathing before having surgery or giving birth, so it seems like the time is ripe for adopting it as a fundamental technique to dealing with the stress of our everyday modern urban existence as stated by American Medical Student Association:

During times of emotional stress our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and effects a number of physical responses. Our heart rate rises, we perspire, our muscles tense and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. If this process happens over a long period of time, the sympathetic nervous system becomes over stimulated leading to an imbalance that can effect our physical health resulting in inflammation, high blood pressure and muscle pain to name a few. Consciously slowing our heart rate, decreasing perspiration and relaxing muscles is more difficult than simply slowing and deepening breathing. The breath can be used to directly influence these stressful changes causing a direct stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in relaxation and a reversal of the changes seen with the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Here's the catch: You need to make abdominal breathing a habit. In order to rapidly pull belly breathing out during those stressful events happening in your life, you need to have it already ingrained into your brain as a technique, and the only way to do this is through repeated practice.

You can choose any kind medium to develop your breath, but I incorporate deep breathing during my sitting meditation and Bikram yoga practice. In fact, one of the best parts of Bikram yoga is that he built into the dialogue specific instructions for how and when to breathe. Some teachers are relentless, and if they catch you breathing through your mouth instead of your nose they will correct you over and over again. Not to drive you insane, but to teach you the correct habit of breathing that will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system so you naturally learn to calm your body.

It's important to learn how to correctly do belly breathing, and I've included a video below that demonstrates the technique, but it's also equally important to build awareness to your breathing patterns by mentally checking in from time to time. How you breathe is a metaphor for how you live your life. How much you are able to give and receive of life is symbolized through the taking in of air and the releasing of it. Here are some questions I ask myself during yoga, meditation, and throughout my routine to see how I am connecting to life's universal energy:

  • Did I breathe in and out during that pose or did I hold my breath?
  • Did I breathe using my belly or just my chest?
  • How much air did I take in?
  • Do I feel out of breath?
  • Am I holding back exhaling the full extent of my breath?

This simple act of asking questions like this will stretch your self-awareness and help you keep coming back to focusing on your breath throughout your life.

To learn how to do abdominal breathing and integrate this practice into your daily life watch this great video from Zoya Yoga. If this is all the yoga you do, belly breathing is the number one health benefit you can integrate into your life.

The Enlightening Mat is a blog series exploring moments of awareness that come to Beth Hemmila while practicing Bikram Yoga.

To shop for yoga charms that celebrate the different poses click here to view this blog post Sterling Silver Charms for Bikram Yoga Postures.  

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