Studying to be a yoga teacher at the age of sixty is an eye opening experience. Before starting the teacher training my relationship to yoga was one of finally coming home to a workout system where my body felt rejuvenated, refreshed and relaxed. I also found my mind in a state of peace and equilibrium after each yoga class. Practicing yoga has brought me many insights as well as emotional, psychological and physical balance.
I had not thought too much about why doing yoga gives such a multi-dimensional experience. After starting the yoga teacher training at Kripalu in Western Massachusetts I felt an ever increasing sense of well-being and happiness.
I am in a room with 55 other people studying anatomy, practicing postures and breathing from 6am to 6pm day after day. I am half way through the training. One of the deepest realizations during this time is the affect breathing has on well-being. Yes, that thing we do twenty-thousand times a day: inhaling and exhaling.
Medically it is obvious why breathing is essential. Without respiration we would die in short order. In fact brain damage begins within minutes of breath failure. The most traumatic and difficult thing we do at birth is to inhale. A new-born baby has to exert four times the normal effort to take their initial breath. It is a tremendous price to pay for independence. From that moment on, the newly born will breathe automatically until her or his last exhale on Earth. Each inhale bringing nourishment to the brain and body. Each exhale, cleansing and detoxifying the body.
Fortunately breathing is an automatic process. In other words the sub-conscious mind can maintain respiration without us having to remember to inhale every five seconds. Because breathing is automatic we can ignore this vital process, and most of us do. We rely on auto-pilot to do all of our breath work. Taking breathing for granted means we have overlooked it’s potential to increase vitality, clarity, focus and even happiness.
One of Yoga’s great contributions to human understanding is that breathing is key to mastering the mind. Without mastering the mind you will be reactive and struggle to manage emotions. Managing emotions is an essential component to develop emotional intelligence, arguably the greatest predictor of performance at school and work. Without reigning in the mind you will find yourself easily overwhelmed and off task.
One simple exercise to do right now is to exhale more deeply than usual. As you exhale pull the navel back toward the spine and up toward the ribs. This belly contraction forces more air out of your lungs. With your lungs completely empty wait for five seconds before you inhale. What happened?
In that short experiment you probably stopped taking your breath for granted. Right? You may have noticed the inhale was deeper than normal. You may have noticed strong emotions. Your heart rate may have increased. What would happen if you repeated this for five, ten or fifteen breathing cycles?
There are several conscious breathing exercises that will stimulate and relax student thinking. My experience is that conscious breathing improves focus, relaxation and rejuvenation. Harvard studies on Kripalu Yoga in schools are showing similar results. After as few as five breathing cycles I feel an underlying relaxation and peace. By putting my attention on breathing, other thoughts, concerns and worries are momentarily displaced. My focus deepens, I concentrate easily and feel more centered emotionally. In some of the conscious breathing techniques I am taking in five to six times the volume of air per breath. With this abundant supply of air the parasympathetic nervous system is in heaven. Because the nervous system thrives on oxygen the brain is able to recognize and transcend the fight and flight stimulus. This in turn stimulates emotional intelligence, metacognition skills and focus.
Conscious breath intervention is a wonderful practice to stimulate and relax the nervous system of you and your students. The results are immediate. It is a wonderful aid to mindfulness and meditation. A classroom that breathes together inspires together.
"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports