A Simple Breathing Practice to Restore and Heal

“The oscillation of breathing is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life. If we are open to this process, life will move us. If we are unable to integrate life’s changes, we begin to resist by restricting our breathing.

When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening we are saying we do not want to be moved. In those moments our desire for certainty has become much stronger than our desire to be dynamically alive.

Breathing freely is a courageous act. ~ Donna Farhi

 

One of the fundamental teachings of yoga is that our breath mirrors our emotional state and by changing our breath we can at a deep level change the way we feel. Not only that but as Donna Farhi’s quote above outlines, our breath is a direct reflection of our relationship to life itself.

 

When we live in fear, or try to control the world around us, this often manifests in a tightening and gripping in our bodies that limits and restricts our ability to breathe well. Breathing freely is courageous because it signals to ourselves and the world that we are OK with change, that we strong and resilient and able to face whatever comes our way.

 

In my private sessions I spend some time in each session exploring and working with the breath. I believe that breath is one of the master techniques and an incredibly valuable tool which can be applied and used to great affect from the very first yoga session.

 

I teach my clients that through conscious and deliberate awareness of their breathing they can soothe (or stimulate) their nervous system, and in turn create a complete physiological and psychological shift in literally a matter of minutes.

 

Many of my clients come to me with restricted breathing patterns which in turn keep them unconsciously locked in a chronically stressed state. Stress tends to manifest as short, irregular, shallow breathing patterns which are felt predominantly in the chest and neck. This type of breathing creates a vicious cycle, keeping our body in a hyper alert state and imprisoned in the stress response.

 

Before I teach clients specific breathwork techniques I almost always give them the time and space to observe their natural breathing patterns, that is, the way they normally breathe without making any changes to it. I invite them to get a sense of how and where they are breathing, the pace, texture and relative ease (or not) of their breath. This helps to give me and the client a sense of where they are starting from.

 

I strongly believe that we can not create change if we are not first aware of what is actually happening. Awareness is the absolute prerequisite for transformation to occur.

 

Once clients have a sense of their natural breathing patterns we then progress to exploring techniques that offer more healthful ways of breathing.

 

The following short audio is one of my favourite ways to work with the breath and I teach it and many variations to my clients. There are two parts to the exercise:

 

  • Breath Awareness through Touch

This part of the exercise is designed to get you comfortable and familiar with feeling the breath move into different parts of the body. We are learning to move breath through the body and to get a sense of what that feels like. I find that using the hands gives us a very immediate and tactile form of feedback which can be useful in the early phases of this work.

 

  • The Complete breath (sometimes called the Yogic Breath)

Taking our ability to move breath into the belly, ribcage and upper chest as our starting place we now explore how to integrate these movements of the breath into all three areas during one complete breath cycle.

Some of the benefits of this exercise include:

  • Increased energy and vitality as we improve circulation and oxygen-intake to the body
  • Strengthened and promotion of proper functioning of the diaphragm which in turn stimulates the relaxation response and reduces
  • Reduction in tension and load of the accessory breathing muscles in the neck, shoulders and upper back/chest
  • Enhanced focus and clarity as the mind is required to stay present on the technique

 

 

The best part about breathwork exercises is that they are incredibly versatile. Breathing requires no special equipment, can be done at any time of the day (or night) and is inconspicuous enough to do in public. This is important because we become what we repeatedly do – thus the more we can integrate these practices as we go about our daily lives, the more we can rely on the power of the breath to soothe, settle and heal at any moment.

The Pursuit of Poses: A Shift in Perspective

A young Vicky in love with arm balances.

 

When I first began my yoga practice, I was both fascinated and captivated by the postures. Many of the yoga books attributed miraculous healing benefits and outcomes to each pose. However, as my journey into yoga evolved I started to realise that striving for ever advanced poses can be fraught with frustration.

 

The body waxes and wanes, your practice goes through peaks and troughs. Some days a pose is readily available, and some days a pose you used to be able to do mysteriously disappears from your repertoire. To base your sense of satisfaction and achievement on the relative ease (or not) with which you could attain these outward forms was like chasing a mirage.

 

As a teacher I witnessed how seductive the pursuit of poses could be and in many ways, as I reflect back on my earlier teaching years, I perhaps inadvertently encouraged it. I taught many classes that were all geared towards preparing you for some sort of ‘peak pose’ – usually an intermediate/advanced level arm balance or deep backbend. I tried to instill a message of finding joy in the journey but I do sometimes wonder if the message got lost along the way, that students felt an unconscious pressure to ‘get somewhere’ in their practice.

 

At this point, I want to say that I do believe in exploring, challenging and having fun with testing our physical and mental boundaries, whether that be through exploring a difficult yoga posture, training for a marathon or practicing cartwheels in your garden. My concern is that we don’t mistake the reward for the pose rather we recognise that the real pleasure and growth lies in the journey, the many pathways and detours we make towards it.

 

“Yoga is not about touching your toes, but about what you learn on the way down there.” ~ Judith Hanson Lasater

 

This quote speaks to the understanding that the poses are just tools, vehicles if you like for helping to light up and bring awareness to different experiences on all levels – physical, mental, energetic and even emotional.  What does the pose teach us about ourselves and our habits and tendencies? What does this pose have to offer us in terms of getting us to know ourselves better?

 

In truth, the process of learning to do something wonderful and crazy in your body (such as going upside-down, or balancing on one leg) is actually way more interesting and fun than the actual ‘doing’ of the pose. Even if we get a glimpse of satisfaction and achievement when we finally nail that handstand, human nature says that once we’ve learnt how to do something we quickly get bored and look to the next thing. This is not bad – constantly looking forwards is how we grow and evolve – it can just get a bit disheartening if you’re not aware of what’s happening.

 

A lot of my students tell me they want to learn the right way to do a pose – the correct technique. I always struggle with how to let them down gently. There is no right way. There is no neat list of cues that we can happily fit into a box called Downward-Facing Dog (DWD). This can be an inconvenient and uncomfortable realisation for those of us who like to have all the answers (basically me). In truth there are a million and one ways to do DWD depending on your skeletal structure and your intentions behind why you’re doing the pose in the first place. This lack of clarity around alignment can be confusing and frustrating for new students – they don’t want to get it wrong, they don’t want to get injured. And yet this is even further evidence to me that the way yoga is often taught may be missing the whole point entirely.

 

Downward-Facing Dog – annoyingly there is no one ‘right’ way to do this pose!

 

I humbly suggest that as teachers we need to empower our students to believe that they have the intuitive wisdom to align themselves in a way that feels integrated, strong and whole. This ability to feel into our bodies and discern and make sense of what we’re feeling and sensing can be a long and sometimes difficult process. In our analytical, logical, cerebrally-centered world many of us have learnt to ignore and shut down the messages of the body and yet what is yoga, if not the art and science of developing of getting to know ourselves better? This developing of self-awareness may in fact be the very best thing we can do for our health and well-being.

 

In my private sessions I am learning to be a little less prescriptive in my cueing (it is still work in progress).  Rather than saying  ‘Put your foot here, turn your shoulder this way – I invite students to try things, to see what gives them the greatest sense of space, strength and stability. “What would it feel like to widen your feet?”  “How can you place your arm to give you the greatest sense of opening in your shoulder?”

 

Rather than there being a wrong or a right way to do a pose – how about exploring many ways of doing something and finding the one that gives you the greatest sense of ease, whole body integration and strength?

Rather than the yoga teacher now being the “guru” or expert who supposedly knows all the answers, the teacher serves as a guide, asking questions along the way, helping the student to find their own answers.

 

Teaching in this way invites the student to see the practice as an internal experience, and a practice of self-enquiry, it creates an environment of playfulness and curiosity and ultimately reminds the student that they are the true authority on their body, not their yoga teacher, their physio or their massage therapist.

 

This type of learning comes from an inwardly directed force, rather than an externally directed dictate and it opens us to the realisation that there is no end goal, just this moment, this breath, this movement and the next time you step onto the mat it will all be different.

 

“We don’t use our body to get into a pose,

We use the pose to get into our body. ~Bernie Clark

 

 

A Yoga Perspective on Finding Meaningful Work

This post originally appeared on Relax and Renew Events, a company that I co-founded with business coach Helen Puddefoot, providing coaching and mindfulness events for women in business.

 

Definition – Dharma

Dharma is a Hindu, Buddhist and yogic concept which refers to the idea of a law or principle governing the universe.The implication of dharma is that there is a right way for each person to carry out their life. If an individual is following their dharma, they are pursuing their truest calling, serving all other beings in the universe by playing their true role. ~ Yogapedia

 

As a yoga teacher I have witnessed some fascinating transformations of students who started yoga and fell in love with the practice. I wrote a blog piece some time ago about how a consistent yoga practice can have a far-reaching impact on seemingly unrelated areas of your life.
 
I have watched as students became absorbed in their yoga practice, and at the same time, started to question and change other areas of their lives. Some started by changing their diets or integrating other health habits, such as getting more sleep, into their daily habits and routines.
 
All too often though, I saw changes that had seemingly no connection. Students on my teacher trainings would realise they no longer had anything in common with their partners or friendship groups, and would start the painful process of letting go of old relationships that no longer served them. Others would talk of their frustration, boredom or lack of connection with their work and fantasise about other career options that would be more in line with their values. I have seen this too many times to think it just a coincidence.
 
Why does this happen? 

There’s something about this practice of yoga that invites us to question and reflect deeply. I often joke to my students, that there’s nowhere to hide on a yoga mat. It’s just you, your body, your breath, your mind and the clear empty space of your yoga mat. The yoga practice will reflect back to you everything you bring to it. If you step onto the mat with anger or frustration – that is what will bubble back up to the surface. Not that there is anything wrong with this. The yoga practice is neutral and just honestly reflects back to us wherever we are at in the moment.
 
What this means is that if you are unhappy about an area of your life, such as your work-life or career, this is what will start to come up for you on your yoga mat to the point that the initial whisperings of discontent may become too loud for you to ignore.
 
Change may be on its way.
 

In yoga we have appropriated the concept of Dharma from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions – the idea that to live a good life means to live in a way that taps into and expresses our fullest potential. We may have several dharmas to carry out in one lifetime, for example, to be a mother, a writer, an investment banker or a carer for an ailing parent.

 
The essential idea is that life flows best, and we are at our happiest, when we recognise and connect to the specific roles that we have been invited on this earth to carry out.

 

This does not mean to say that our dharma is all plain-sailing and joyful. Any career path, no matter how well aligned to our values will have good days and also its challenges and uphill struggles. I absolutely love my work as a yoga therapist but I still moan about doing certain tasks – accounts, emails, maintaining my social media presence to name a few! However, generally speaking, we know we are in accordance with our dharma when we cannot think of anything else we would rather be doing with our life.
 
So how does one find their dharma? This soul-searching is part of the rich journey of life. Some may find it easier or earlier than others, but it really helps when we carve out enough quiet time in the busyness of our day-to-day schedules to tune in and really listen to the callings of our hearts.
 
Yoga and meditation practices are perfect for this deep inner work because they give us the time and space to sit with ourselves and to allow insight, self-revelations and mini-epiphanies to rise to the surface.
 
With this in mind I have recorded a brief 10-minute meditation designed to help you explore this idea of dharma and its personal relevance to you. This meditation aims to help develop greater personal insight into your current relationship to your work and to develop clarity around your future career dreams and aspirations.

 

I recommend doing this meditation on a regular basis as our dharmic roles will change and evolve with time – what may be right for us now, may and probably will change a few years down the line. The questions in this meditation are also perfect for a journaling practice. Click on the Soundcloud link below to access the meditation:
 
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