Half way through a ridding class on a muddy summer morning it was time to pick up speed. Nerves cluttered my stomach. “Are you afraid of falling off?” my teacher Adrianne teased responding to my body language. “No,” I answered vaguely. I wasn’t afraid of falling. I was terrified the horse would slip and fall on me. The slim chances of my imagined scenario playing out combined with my trust in Adrianne urged me into the challenge, and with a gentle kick we moved forward despite the sloppy footing. My body felt stiff and unresponsive. I increased my focus and tried harder. This made everything worse. “Are you breathing?” Adrianne called across the field. This time I answered with a deep inhale.
There it was, twenty years of practicing yoga and a little nervous energy had hindered my most powerful tool for wellbeing – my breath. Once my body felt air draw in the tension softened and everything became easy, rhythmic, and connected. It was that simple. I just needed to breathe.
So what is the big deal? After all, if I wasn’t breathing I’d be dead right? Not all breathing is the same; just like not all food is the same. You could survive eating total junk, but it would eventually catch up to you.
Breath is at the root of every movement we make. It acts as the driving force behind the dynamic nature of all of the bodies systems. Breath works with the heart to move blood throughout the body, it orchestrates the rhythms of every organ, and it even informs nervous system response. Breathing well is the most readily accessible resource you have for creating and sustaining your vital energy.
When the going gets tough and our fight or flight response kicks in all of our systems hunker down for danger, but it is the return to full breathing that brings us back to our relaxation response. All to often we forget to draw on our breath to restore balance. This is how we end up feeling fatigued and increase the risk for illness. The relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system) is responsible and required for rebuilding the body, and with five breaths it is possible to ignite the transformation needed to support wellness. When you can breathe well under extreme pressure, you have basically reached full Ninja capacity – or so I am told. I’m working on that dilligently. Here are three things you can do every day to enhance your ability to breathe no matter what comes your way:
Roll out the bottoms of your feet on a tennis ball.
The description says it all, but take time and be methodical about it. Keep the tennis ball moving so you don’t jam up your tissues and of course notice your breath while you are at it. Before switching to the second foot pause and take a deep inhale. You may notice the lung capacity on the side that got rolled out expanded and more open than the other side. It feels like magic, but it just proves how connected all of our body parts are and how much tension lives in our feet!
Poor posture is the enemy of good breathing and the posture reset is a great way to check in anytime, anywhere. Raise your arms over your head and reach up. Extend from your shoulders to your elbows, from your elbows to your wrists and straight through your fingers. Now inhale and imagine the back of your ribcage expanding, then exhale and reach more. This can happen on a walk, run, or ride and should definitely happen while sitting at your desk. I do a quick Posture reset anytime I begin to feel tired or have been in the same position for a while. Its almost as good as coffee.
5 Nourishing Breaths.
Yogis often practice a lot of fancy pranayam (breath work). Although it has its place, simply breathing with the intention of breath as nourishment and giving it the importance we give food and love is all we truly need. Lay down either on your belly with your forehead resting on your hands or on your back with your knees slightly elevated by a pillow. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. On the inhales, feel your diaphragm move down pressing into your organs and expanding your belly, sides and low back. On the exhales, linger. Let the air slip out in response to the body softening. Repeat this at least five times, and if all goes well, try it for five minutes.
There it is; give your feet some love and affection, check in with your posture on a regular basis, and give yourself permission to take at least five nourishing breaths a day. When breathing is treated with mindfulness and respect we are more likely to notice its absence, and more able to access it when our footing feels unsteady – muddy. The power of breath elegantly runs and fine-tunes all of the systems of the body and it has the capacity to change us physically and mentally. We must simply breathe well.
Originally written for Wellscene Magazine