OUR RADIANT BREATH
“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip,
THE ULTIMATE LIFE-ENHANCEMENT TOOL
it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
"The quality of our breathing determines the quality of our lives: health, moods, energy, creativity - all depend on the oxygen supply provided by our breathing. But the pressures of our modern-day life have created an almost literally breath-less culture." Carola H. Spreads, Ways to Better Breathing
For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth. ~Sanskrit Proverb
Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life. ~Giovanni Papini
The greatest inhibitors of free breathing are the lives we spend in the virtual worlds – whether those of our own mind, or the mass mind of the world-wide-web – for both are lifeless, breathless lands.
* * *
If a revolutionary new product hit the health marketplace that could –
- flood the body with high levels of oxygen
- cleanse the cells of toxins and acidity
- enhance rapid healing
- recharge our systems with energy at will
- maximize our endurance and strength
- enhance immune function
- retard aging
- lower blood pressure
- lower heart rate
- resolve anxiety, panic attacks and emotional distresses balance acid/alkaline body chemistry
- facilitate weight loss
- recover control of our mind and emotions during stressful situations
- enhance antibiotic activity in the bloodstream
- create internal warmth
- minimize the experience of pain
Of course you would – so would I!
Well, -- we’ve got it – and we’ve always had it; it’s free, it’s fun and it’s easy: it’s breathing.
Or even perhaps – to better get at the feel of it – “B R E A T H I N G”
. . . which I sincerely hope you’re doing just now – freely, fully, peacefully, expansively.
Everything else costs something – or depends upon availability, accessibility, procurement. Just breath – and breath alone – is the single health and healing tool unceasingly ours for the taking.
Daniel P. Reid, author of The Tao of Sex, Health & Longevity, relates the astonishing story of Yeh Pu-Sheng, a Chinese schoolteacher working in the United States whose Western physicians handed her the diagnosis: advanced uterine cancer. The malignancy was removed but quickly recurred and grew rapidly. She was told that further surgery was not an option, and that she had six months to live. Desperate, she and her husband flew to Taipei and she placed herself under the direction of Master Lee Tse-ni, a contemporary Taoist teacher. Because of her advanced condition, he required that she practice specific breathings for a total of eight full hours a day. At the end of six months of practice, her cancer began to reverse its relentless growth, gradually waned, and soon disappeared completely, with no recurrence.
How is this possible? What’s so special about a practice as simple as breathing that could so dramatically address the most dreaded disease of our era?
In healthy individuals the blood oxygen consistently rests between 98 and 100 as measured by a pulse oximeter, but in those with cancer it is commonly found to be around 60. The cancer patient's blood oxygen is replaced by wastes such as carbon dioxide. As revealed by the work of Dr. Otto Warburg, this hypoxia – or oxygen starvation -- is caused by acidosis, and leads to the formation of tumors, as cells must mutate to derive their energy from an alternate process – fermentation.
Vital breathing is capable of restoring the blood to an alkaline – or oxygen-rich – condition, thereby depriving cancer cells of their fuel. By “vital”, we refer to a breathing which is capable of nourishing the deep life-sustaining – or “vital” – organs – rather than merely our musculature, as is the case with aerobic breathing.
Dr. Andrew Weil spent twelve years seeking out healers in remote areas of the world, only to come away from his quest disappointed. When he returned to Tucson, Arizona, he unexpectedly encountered what he called “the most interesting healer that I learned from”, an osteopath in his mid-eighties, and “the most effective clinician that I’ve ever seen,” with “an incredible success rate. . . I also saw him perform relatively instant cures of conditions that had resisted long-term treatment by regular medicine. To me it was very refreshing to see that you could treat illness without a lot of equipment, without a lot of technological hardware, without drugs, without charging people a lot of money, doing very simple stuff and getting excellent results.” From him, a cranio-sacral specialist, Weil learned that breathing was the most critical function determining human health or illness. Even as little as 5 or 10 minutes a day will deliver a palpable “charge” to our system and spirit – and should we wish deeper benefits – from 30 to 60 minutes may be considered. There are numerous instances, as well, of those dealing with extreme situations, who have engaged in hours of daily practice with immense benefit.
There’s a spiritual fable that tells how, at the beginning of creation, the gods placed Truth in a spot so obvious that everyone overlooked it—upon their foreheads.
Breathing is like that—too close to notice, too good to believe.
If we decide to take advantage of what we’ve always been doing anyway, and learn to do it better, we can become co-pilots instead of passengers, steering a much surer course through life.
In an experiment at State University of New York at Buffalo, scientists experimented with three elderly Veterans Administration Hospital patients who had symptoms of hardening of the arteries in the brain. They put them into a pressurized oxygen room – called a hyperbaric (or highly pressurized) chamber – twice a day for fifteen days. The results were remarkable. Their improvement on intelligence and memory tests surpassed all expectations. Louis R. Chevalier wrote “. . .Afterwards the difference was spectacularly clear. Those who had had the real treatment of high-pressure oxygen were all much more active than their counterparts in the control group. They asked for newspapers and magazines to read. They began to pay more attention to their personal appearance. Four, in fact, seemed so much improved they we’re allowed to go home.”
Dr. Edgar End agrees: “I’ve seen partially paralyzed people half carried into a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, and they walk out after their first treatment! If we got to these people quickly, we could prevent a great deal of damage."
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy consistently:
1) greatly increases oxygen concentration in all body tissues, even those with reduced or blocked blood flow;
2) stimulates the growth of new blood vessels to tissues with reduced circulation, improving blood flow to areas with arterial blockage;
3 ) creates an increased blood vessel diameter and improves blood flow to damaged organs;
4) stimulates an adaptive increase in superoxide dismutase (SOD), and greatly aids the healing of infections by enhancing white blood cells
Many of these benefits are also available, albeit more gradually, through Vital breathing,
Dr. Otto Warburg, Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his discoveries on the importance of cell respiration, wrote: “. . . the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar. . .Deep breathing techniques which increase oxygen to the cell are the most important factors in living a disease free and energetic life. . . . Remember, where cells get enough oxygen, cancer will not, can not occur." (Author’s italics).
His message is clear: Breathe well and live! In the flood of abundant oxygen, even deeply-entrenched cancer cells can lose their integrity, self-destruct and be eliminated by white blood cell scavengers.
Famous health advocate and author Paul Bragg tells of meeting a 126-year old holy man in the foothills of the Himalayas who taught him the principles of breathing which he were presented in Bragg’s book Super Vital Breathing. The holy man had all his teeth, perfect vision and “the stamina of an athlete”. He spoke five languages fluently and was, according to Bragg’s daughter Patricia, one of the most amazing men Bragg ever met. When asked the secret of his radiant well-being, his response was, “I have made a lifelong practice of faithfully doing my deep breathing and deep, slow breathing meditations daily.”
During aerobic exercise, our demand for oxygen skyrockets and deep, rapid breathing kicks in to supply it; but most of this oxygen is consumed as heart and muscle fuel. Very little is left to nourish and cleanse the vital organs, tissues and cells, or to upgrade the immune system—but these are our most critical indicators of health.
But when we practice calm, vital breathing – which will be described in detail further along -- during non-strenuous times our demand for oxygen remains low while our intake and distribution of oxygen is maximized. This provides an abundance of energy which won’t be co-opted by urgent needs from the cardiovascular system or the muscles. The oxygen surplus is required to heal and repair their tissues and enhance functioning. . . . proper breathing. . . is the ultimate form of aerobics."
--Dr. Robert Fried, Breath Connection, Insight Books, 1990, p. 52
", , ,We can look at oxygen deficiency as the single greatest cause of all diseases."-
-Stephen Levine, molecular biologist and geneticist, & Dr. Paris M. Kidd, Ph.D.
A high-oxygen tissue environment is a state of high-immunity. When all is said and done, it is the quality of the blood and lymph—our “white blood” —that directly determines our being state of health.
Dr. George Freibott Founder, International Association of Oxygen Therapy
Of the two thirds of our body that is fluid, only 10% is blood; the other 90% is lymph, which, unlike the blood, has no heart to pump it through the body; the flow of that massive river of lymph is stimulated more powerfully by breathing than any other influence. By deeply cleansing our blood and lymph streams, Vital breathing upgrades the health of your immune system.
"Deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the cleansing of the lymph system by creating a vacuum effect which pulls the lymph through the bloodstream. This increases the rate of toxic elimination by as much as 15 times the normal rate."
--Dr. J.W. Shields, MD
Qigong expert Roger Jahnke tells us that: “Shallow breathing also impairs immune function. It does so by slowing the circulation of antibodies and immune cells throughout the body.”
He recovered his health in a matter of months. Knowles went on to become an international breath therapist, and spent the next 60 years instructing thousands of individuals—including politicians, military officers and clergymen--how to overcome all kinds of illness through good breathing alone, traveling and teaching well into his eighties. Just the testimonials of cures from his rich career would fill a full-length book by themselves.
A nurse who works in medical research said, "It's so simple. I don't know why I never thought of it before. When we're working with cell cultures in the lab, if we want the cells to mutate, we turn down the oxygen, to stop them, we turn the oxygen back up." (http://www.safesolutionsinc.com/cancer.htm)
This crucial point was clarified in an article entitled Parent Essential Fatty Acids, Oxygenation, and Cancer Prevention: A New Solution, and can be found in Anti-Aging Thereapeutics, Volume XI Chapter 29, edited by Ronald Klatz & Robert Goldman:
How Can Tissue Become Oxygen Deficient? The Secret of PEO-Containing Oils?And so far, we have only addressed the physical and physiological side of the breath-equation. Breathing has, if anything, at least equal or even greater fruits on the psycho-spiritual end of the spectrum.
The body requires special fats, which, among other important functions, make it possible for sufficient oxygen to reach the cells via the cell membranes – the key to cancer prevention. These special fats are highly oxygen-absorbing entities called essential fatty acids, or EFAs, and must be eaten every day, because your body can’t manufacture them on its own. There are two “parent” forms of EFAs that allow your body to make whatever it needs from them, i.e. the various types of EFA “derivatives.”
Supplemental EFA-derivatives, such as EPA and DHA are not required because the body makes them as needed in very small amounts. Parent omega-6 is termed linoleic acid (LA), and parent omega-3 is termed alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). I call these two parent EFAs parent essential oils (PEOs) in order to clearly differentiate these from the non-essential “derivatives” that are manufactured by the body “as needed.”
Parent Omega-6 Increases Oxygen Transfer Like Little “Oxygen Magnets”
Campbell et al found that LA (parent omega-6), can associate with oxygen and dissociate the oxygen at relatively high oxygen pressure in cellular membranes. These researchers also found that fatty acids (in particular, LA) effect the permeability of cell membranes to molecular oxygen by increasing cellular oxygenation by up to 50%, thus helping you remain cancer-free. (Author’s italics).
They concluded that interference with the movement of oxygen can occur at any cell membrane in any tissue. That’s why regardless of where the cancer occurs, the prime cause is the same – the cancerous tissue is the most oxygen impaired. This simple truth bears repeating. Warburg unequivocally showed all cancers occur for the same reason. American researchers confirmed the fact. Moreover, PEO deficiency can cause substitution into the cell membranes of non-oxygenating fats that impair oxygen transport, exacerbating the cancer causing state. Is there more confirmation in the medical texts of PEO’s oxygenating ability? Yes. Several medical textbooks and published medical papers, to name a few, all confirm its oxygenating ability.
“Someone recently showed me the annual prospectus of a large spiritual organization. When I looked through it, I was impressed by the wide choice of interesting seminars and workshops. It reminded me of a smorgasbord, one of those Scandinavian buffets where you can take your pick from a huge variety of enticing dishes. The person asked me whether I could recommend one or two courses. "I don't know," I said. "They all look so interesting. But I do know this," I added. "Be aware of your breathing as often as you are able, whenever you remember. Do that for one year, and it will be more powerfully transformative than attending all of these courses. And it's free."
To those who still aren’t excited – and may, alas, even be marginally bored – by the idea of breath- cultivation, I would hasten to say: “Hang on – it’s so much more than you might think”… Incredibly much more, actually.
The image that comes to mind is that of my outdated laptop – whose battery isn’t up to the job of illuminating the screen when it’s not plugged in; you can see the desktop, but it’s dim, dull and dreary – hardly worth the effort.
That’s what life is like for the “barely-breathers” of this world, the shallowdwellers who – perhaps even since childhood – have forgotten just how vital and radiant a human body can feel. But just begin – and continue – breathing – participating in your breath, easily, naturally – and that faint, flickering LCD of your being suddenly becomes luminous, crisp, clear – mentally, emotionally and physically – at one and the same time.
We don’t turn into saints – but we do become full-fledged human beings, capable of functioning on all cylinders. Even if we chance to experience sadness or anger, we feel them clearly, deal with them directly, and move on. If we encounter challenges, we meet them with focus and purpose, and don’t find ourselves easily falling into disarray. And, should emergencies arise, we seem to summon resources which others find surprising.
Are the fruits of Vital breathing too good to be true? …no, not really, because it’s so very easily to prove, if we will only give it fair trial.
Over the long haul, compared with our ancient forbears, and armed with recent scientific research data about changes in the atmosphere, it is overwhelmingly likely that we have been oxygen-deprived as a species for a very long while.
This stems primarily from two major evolutionary/historical trends – the first of which is the decreasing oxygen saturation in the air we breathe; at the outset, the planet had a 37% oxygen saturation, as opposed to the 20% quotient of today; and the second, perhaps more critical is the shift of the earth’s population from hunter-gatherer and agrarian lifestyles to post-industrial, technological cultures, and their lethal latter day spinoff -- immersion in the bodyless virtual reality of the “web”.
As to just why such changes might be compromising the original health endowment nature intended us to have, the following research extract offers some intriguing implications:
“A new study published July 22, 2010 found that spending large quantities of time sitting each day, no matter how much exercise a person engages in otherwise, can raise a person's risk of death. Considering the high percentage of people who sit several hours each day at work, the study’s findings could make a big impact on a large percentage of the population.
The individuals in the study, 53,440 men and 69,776 women, had no history of heart attack, stroke, cancer, emphysema or any other lung disease. Researchers looked at the amount of time spent sitting and physical activity of each participant. The results showed that women who sat six or more hours per day were 37 percent more likely to die during the length of the study as compared to women who sat three hours per day. Men who sat more than six hours per day were 18 percent more likely to die than men who sat only three hours per day. Surprisingly, the death rate did not change even when physical activity was added independently of the hours sitting.”
(For further information:http://www.suite101.com/content/sitting-for-hours-each-day-linked-to-higher-risk-of-death-a265582)
Alright – maybe you – as I – find the evidence overwhelmingly compelling; so let’s imagine that some of you, at least, are convinced and want to forge ahead toward breathing with intentionality from hereon. What do you do?
But from where I breathe, I would say that, with a few exceptions, there are indeed benefits to many of these widely differing forms of breathing, even apparently mutually exclusive ones. Some admonish never to manipulate or “force” the breath, while others encourage it. Some extol the merits of breath retention, while others fault it as dangerous. Some fear what they deem to be “hyperventilation”, yet others aspire to it.
Martial arts disciplines exploit the breath for their specific agendas of generating force and control, while voice-training methods are geared to equipping the body for musical projection and prowess.
So rather than engage in a “War of the Breath Methods”, let’s just celebrate the fact that we might well have a spectrum of many potentially valuable tools at our disposal – the more the merrier. The idea of “best” may be a little bit absurd here.
It seems clear that although we can leave breathing to its own autonomic process, evolution has also designed us to bring choice and intentionality into the equation if we so choose – and, in the best case scenario – to become conscious breathers.
Just as a botanist can render nature even more beautiful – through cultivation, judicious pruning – so can we enhance ourselves through conscious breathing.
Rather than enshrining any particular breath practice, such as classic yogic pranayama, qigong, Middendorf’s “Perceptible Breath”, Reichian and Holotropic breathwork, Rebirthing, Stough’s “breathing coordination” or others – practices about which innumerable authoritative tomes have been written, and most of which I have willingly explored, I’m inclined to share a simple, enjoyable way – neither proprietary nor arcane – which is accessible 24/7, no matter where we find ourselves or what we happen to be up to.
And a way, I am more than happy to report, which will – besides bequeathing clear psycho-physical benefits – is actually enjoyable, even over the long term, never losing its spontaneity.
In that light, few simple pointers – as opposed to ironclad “instructions” – can be quite helpful.
If I were to cull all the “best advice” from all the many traditions and practices, ancient and modern, toss them into a good churn and blend them into one seamless body of Breath Wisdom (how’s that for gumption?) that “butter” might come out looking something like the following:
Breath is You – and You are Breath; you may look like flesh and bone, but in your deepest essence and core, you are nothing so much as you are Breath; you live, move and exercise all other dimensions of your life -- your gifts of thought, feeling and sensing solely by virtue of the Breath that flows into you from the Universal – and out again.
That Breath flows whether you’re aware of it – or care about it -- or not – but how much richer, powerful and intentional your lives – and each singular moment – will become when you step out of thinking and the brain and enter into a direct, intimate dance with your own Breath.
Once you do, changes will immediately commence to occur on all the levels of your being simultaneously – physical, mental, emotional, energetic.
1) Your body will begin to purify itself of toxins and waste, starting with the bloodstream and lymph stream, and continuing to the cells, tissues and organs in turn. You will have much more energy, vitality, endurance. 2) Your brain – whose major fuel is, after all, oxygen – and – in turn – your mind – will feel as if a bright light had been switched on – and will experience increased powers of attention, cognition and creativity – without falling into fatigue or exhaustion. 3) Your emotions will come into much more comfortable balance, without the extremes and excesses of the past – even when you quite naturally find yourself feeling quite strongly about one issue or another. 4) Your personal reservoir of energy – your “operating memory”, if you will, will be much deeper than before, and you will find yourself capable of sustained endeavor in whatever area you choose to function.
Then, just how might one move into this mysterious process? Perhaps for some who are used to and comforted by more structure, the following hints may feel somewhat elusive. If so, my suggestion would be to go ahead and reap the benefits of one or several structured practices of your choice for a given time frame each day, and, as feels comfortable, begin to explore outside the box with some ideas offered here.
Such a course could well be critical for those dealing with illness or other severe physical or psychological imbalances, and who wish to plunge into therapeutic breathwork as directly as possible – as was the case with Yeh Pu-Sheng in addressing her ovarian cancer. Qigong, pranayama and Ki Breathing are three powerful such practices.
But bear in mind that nurturing intentional, spontaneous breathing ultimately means cutting loose from all such methods, rules and regimens, all “shoulds” and “musts”, and finding your own unique and intimate relationship with the life-current within you – the breath.
1. Wherever you find yourself, but outside if at all possible. Outdoor air is preferable to indoor; it contains an atmospheric charge and a life energy far higher than enclosed air. Seashores, waterways, pine forests and parks are particularly desirable. As often as you can, be where the air is fresh; if it is chill or cold, simply wear a loose muffler. Keep the body comfortably warm, but not overdressed.
2. Whenever you wish, but ideally by or before 8 a.m., while the atmosphere is still relatively pure and rich in ionic charge. And, to rid the nervous system of stress and toxins, just prior to retiring – even if only for 5 or 10 minutes.
3. In the beginning, to better discover the subtleties within breathing, practice in a sitting or standing position – either seated, legs comfortably crossed in a supported yoga asana, or – very powerful – sitting on your heels, knees slightly splayed, toes touching the earth. As breath-awareness becomes more natural, you’ll be able to maintain it even while walking or driving.
Hooking up to the earth-grid --
4. If practical, practice with your feet or legs in direct contact with the earth, or if the earth is too chill or damp, upon a thin cotton or wool fabric folded under you. Also of great benefit is to be near a pine or other mature tree. If direct earth-contact is not possible or practical, and you are practicing inside, consider investing in an Earthing mat, a simple unit which connects your body to the earth ground, and which replenishes your system with free electrons which neutralize electrical charges and biochemical stresses.
In what spirit?
5. No matter what the method, enter into it with genuine enjoyment, as if air – oxygen – prana – life-energy – whatever we wish to call it – is a precious substance which we are extremely delighted and privileged to partake of – which, in fact, it is. You’re not merely plodding through a mechanical process – you’re getting high on a delicious energy food!
A “quiet pleasure” --
6. Let a subtle smile – as if of some private pleasant memory passing before your mind’s eye – as you enter your Vital breathing. This will insure that you continue without strain or force: you’re happy to be there, and you’re really enjoying every bit of it. No one is standing beside you with a bullwhip – especially not your conscience. Keep this subtle – or “inner” – smile abidingly throughout your breathing time.
The power of visualization --
7. If the inner smile seems strange or unnatural for you, simply bring to mind the image of a lovely rose, an expansive ocean, a beautiful sunset – something you genuinely love – and you will be in the place of an “inner smile” naturally. One deeply skilled teacher advised taking the breath in as if one were savoring a fine wine. This ensures an aesthetic and elegant – rather than merely mechanical – experience.
In good company --
8. As you do so, keep in mind you will be in good company – thousands of the world’s teachers, healers, spiritual mentors, nature-lovers and native cultures – tribes which lived lifetimes of spontaneous vital breathing with no formal training whatever.
A simple way to sense depth -
9. As an initial help, place your hands on your hips, thumbs on the back side, fingers on the front side, just above the hipbone. Until it becomes natural and reflexive, you will look for your incoming breath to easily inflate the spaces of the lower torso cushioned between your thumbs and your fingers.
Later, when you’ve got the feel of this “subterranean expansion”, you can let go of your hands-on-hips “training wheels”.
Choosing to become aware --
10. You are already breathing anyway, of course – but now you decide to become “intentional”, to marry your awareness to your instinctual being – to reconnect your consciousness to your organic self. You bring your (gently smiling) attention to your nasal channels, and simply experience the unique, refreshing sensation of incoming air.
Then leaving it to the Universe --
You are not trying to “suck it in”; in fact, you are just allowing it to come in, with no interference. The easiest way to trigger this deep reflex is to follow your exhalation to its end – just as you would follow a receding ocean wave out to sea – and to disinterestedly watch and wait for the arrival of the next incoming wave. Perhaps it will take a few seconds, maybe longer, but certainly, come it will, you may rest assured. Had it not been coming, moment after moment, all the moments since your birth, you wouldn’t be here now! If you avoid the temptation to meddle with it, it will be soundless, as quiet as a milkweed landing on grass. As one sage suggested, it should be as fine as the thread of silk being spun out by a silkworm.
Deepening downward & outward --
11. Sense your torso as an elegant pear, slender at the apex, widening circumferentially into a bulb within your pelvis. As the soundless air enters, it seeks out this lowest, most expansive breathspace, rather than struggling with the relative confines of the upper regions of chest and solar plexis.
Breathing your fingers apart --
12. There’s no need to concern yourself with just how a breath which enters your nostrils and expands into your lungs could possibly cause such a deep area of your body to rhythmically expand and contract; just trust that it can and it will, and gently seek for and experience the “irrigation” of the hip-lower back areas with each breathing cycle.
This will begin to re-educate your body to accepting the breath in at a much deeper, more foundational level than perhaps ever before.
Expanding in all directions --
13. There you are, your hands resting over your hip bones, your spine lightly arched forward between sacrum and sternum, your head as if suspended from the sky by a fine silk thread, your shoulders released to either side as if they had grown suddenly broader. In a famous phrase, you feel yourself as “high, wide and handsome”.
The “fine wine” of incoming breath --
14. Sense the breath as cooling, gently refreshing as it flows into your nostrils from the universe, gliding up the passages until it enters the head, just between and behind the eyes. This alone is a wonderfully awakening experience; perhaps for the first time, you feel yourself positioned at a point of great balance and power within yourself – like a captain at the helm of his ship – just behind your eyes and at the mantle of your brain.
“Filling the pear” from the bottom up --
15. And somehow, by simply taking care to leave it relaxed, you allow the breath to bypass the clutches of your chest, which remains virtually inactive, with only marginal expansion – and to descend to the spaces between your thumbs and fingers, just over the hips.
When this area gently expands, you will feel it doing so equilaterally – front, back and sides – at one and the same time. It is like a deep, long dry riverbed that suddenly becomes irrigated by new spring rains.
Allow this “irrigation” to occur, and then to empty itself, as the hip-spaces contract.
Riding the outgoing wave to its vanishing point –
16. When the incoming breath flows past its fulcrum and eventually pivots into the outgoing breath, feel just like surfer at the crest of a down-coming wave, and glide along with it until its momentum dissolves into momentary pause.
Enjoy the interval of being suspended between the spent breath and the yet-to-be born new breath, interested but not concerned as to just how, when and from where this new breath impulse will emerge – a mystery indeed, yet also a certainty.
All at once – together
17. But really, whenever you’re too focused on a certain part of the body – even the diaphragm – you will be creating – by exclusion – a subtle tension in some other deserving-to-be-included parts – say, the soles and the crown. Ultimately, you want your relaxed, full awareness to extend throughout your entire frame – sometimes even beyond it – and to sense – simultaneously, believe it or not – crown, nose, torso, back, belly, legs, feet – in one fell swoop.
Fragmented concentration will never do this; it ‘s the wrong tool for the job, and simply works against the process. What’s needed, really, is a gentle step back from your well-intended but limited practice of focusing pointedly on “this or that” – and to embrace your entire human form with your awareness. This results in an instantaneous, simultaneous, total sensing of yourself – just as you had when you came out of the womb, and before life distracted you. It represents an organic “entirety”.
When you “de-focus” or “de-concentrate” in this way, there is no regional stress, no pushing or pulling – within or against yourself, no fighting with your being. Everything works together – “in concert” – like a good orchestra, and, by Jove, it sounds – and feels – wonderful.
With any luck, there’s still a slight smile on your lips, your body is still relaxed and light, and you’re unaware of having made any special effort in any particular direction: you’ve just more or less had a ride in the sailboat of your body, letting the wind of breath take you where and when it will.
Once you’ve had the taste of this non-effortful, relatively laid-back liaison with your breath, and can easily maintain it – whether for minutes or hours, you may choose to use your intentionality to create virtually any other kind of breathing you care to – from traditional to contemporary.
Only now, you’ll be outfitted to do them stresslessly, with ease and enjoyment, and none of the tension that well-meaning – but poorly taught – breathers often unconsciously create within themselves.
And yes, if you choose, you can engage in more heroic endeavors – breaths of long duration – 30, 60, 90 seconds or more, perhaps – or not; such extremes are by no means necessities, and thousands of years of magnificently healthy, deeply oxygenated native cultures have lived purely on the blessings of the organic, natural breathing that a life in connection with nature has gifted them.
So that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, we’ll share three classic practices as simply as possible, and let you take it from there.
1) Complete Breathing
For practical purposes, traditional yoga pranayma doctrine divides the breathing space into three hypothetical sections: clavicular – or upper torso – breathing, ribcage – or mid-torso – breathing, and diaphragmatic – or lower torso – breathing. By contrast, Ilsa Middendorf, mistress of “The Perceptible Breath” postulates no fewer than five breathing spaces. But in truth – and not analytical anatomical conceptualizations – there is just one undivided breathing space – and that one from crown to sole, embracing everything in between.
Since we humans have been brought up looking at life in a fragmentary way, our brains – in their attempt to be “factual” – insist that, no, we have many breathing stages: first the nose, then the pharynx, the bronchi, the lungs, the alveoli, and so forth. And, they insist, it is utterly fallacious to think that we can breathe in any other way – such as through various parts of the body. Absurd!, they say.
Well, stepping out on a seemingly illogical limb here, I say: they are all quite wrong. It is very possible indeed to breathe with the whole being, all at once and everywhere, as it were – and that this is the purest, highest, most natural and satisfying breathing that we can all do. And it is equally possible – and rewarding – to cultivate special “regional” breathings – i.e. with the belly, the soles, the palms, the eyes, the bones, the genitals, the crown.
But more of this at another time.
So then, all one does to fulfill complete breathing in the traditional manner is to take a full or half-lotus posture, or a sitting position, with spine erect and hands resting upturned upon the inner thighs, and invite the breath in, expanding the belly or lower diaphragm first, the ribcage and solar plexus next, and the upper chest last. The incoming count may be as brief as 8, or 16 or 32, and the outgoing parallel to it. But when counting comes in, ease, naturalness and spontaneity soon leave. The yoga die-hards hold high store by the numbers, however, which, for these disciplinarians, remain earmarks of progress and prowess. Methinks otherwise, alas.
Repeat as desired, but don’t exhaust yourself!
2) Alternate nostril breathing
This is a highly effective pacifying breath, capable of producing inner peace in a relatively brief span; the esoteric explanation is that it balances the polarities within the body, producing an energetic equilibrium. I’ll buy that theory, since, whatever the modus operandus – it is quite effective.
Using the right hand (I have not found the left to be overly destructive), close off the right nostril and inhale through the left – to a count of 4, 8, 12 or 16 – and, without retaining the breath (which some do), exhale to a parallel count through the right nostril while closing off the left.
Now reverse the process, inhaling through the right and exhaling through the left.
The finer the breath, the more effective the exercise.
3) The Vocalized Breath
This is a personal favorite, for its immediate effectiveness in lengthening and strengthening the breath, yet seemingly without “working at it”. The additional calming and cohering vibrational effect of the voice makes it my first choice for a practice which is both integrating and exhilarating. Try it, you’ll like it!
Take a reasonably full breath, and then, on either a hum or an “ah” or “ahm”, simply sustain the sound as long as is easily sustainable; this is not an endurance test!
Many people find that, even without training, they are able to sustain the sound for 15 seconds or more. The inhalation comes spontaneously at the end of the sound, and is nothing we need to think about: it’s there before we know it. All we focus upon is nice, smooth, seamless sound of moderate pitch, soaring out of us and into the universe.
The brain and nervous system love this practice, and learn to “bathe” in the vibrations that resonate through the body.
Well, there you have it, a necessarily compressed, slightly eccentric primer on this strange phenomenon that’s been with us all our lives, but which we may never have explored, thinking it was meant always to be on “automatic”.
Automatic is nature’s unfailing safety net, indispensable for survival when asleep, unconscious or in emergency mode; but once you’ve done the dance of conscious breathing, you may never want to go back to sleep.
Is there a lot more? Of course – infinitely more – an unceasing journey of discovery – but that’s for each to discover for his or her self.
Some suggested reading:
A Life Worth Breathing, Max Strom
Ki Breathing, Koichi Tohei
The Miracle of Breathing, Paul Bragg
The Breath of Life, Kozo Nishino
Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, Dennis Lewis
The Tao of Natural Breathing, Dennis Lewis
Breathing: Expanding Your Power & Energy, Michael Sky
Microtonal Healing: Spirit of the Healing Voice, Linda Nielsen
Light on Pranayama, B.K.S. Iyengar
Hara: the Vital Center of Man, Karlfired Graf Durckheim