What is more important - food or air? Exhale all of the air from your lungs and hold the out breath. In about ten seconds the answer will become obvious. Thoughts of eating, working, debt and relationships will all disappear as your nervous system screams out its answer - AIR!
If air is so important why don’t you ever pay attention to your breathing? After all you inhale between fifteen and twenty five thousand times a day. There are plenty of opportunities to notice.
Paying attention to your breathing has been shown to improve your health, calm your mind, lower your blood pressure, focus at work, improve your relationships and more. Arguably, paying attention to your breath, is the greatest self care system known to mankind - and it is FREE!
The science behind breathing and health is not complicated. The body and mind are nourished by oxygen. Every inhale equals nourishment. Every exhale cleanses the toxins and wastes from your body. In other words breathing nourishes and cleans you.
There is a catch. If you do not pay attention to your breathing you will start to short change yourself. Under stress and anxiety you will begin to breathe less air and sometimes hold your breath unconsciously. Simply put, you will start to starve yourself of nourishment and accumulate toxins in your body.
What happens when you are under-nourished and poisoned? The initial symptoms usually are imbalance, anxiety, loss of vitality, tiredness, depression and eventually illness.
If this is all true then why don’t you pay attention to your breathing? When I ask most people answers vary - too busy, too tired, can’t be bothered. Sound familiar? Ironically these are the very symptoms of lack of air.
When many people eventually are forced to take more self-care the doctor will suggest exercise, give up smoking and eat better food. These are all wonderful suggestions but can seem overwhelming changes to make.
How about starting simply? Change the way you breathe. After all it is free and you have to breathe anyway. I suggest you start with the ten day challenge.
At least once a day stop and notice how your breathing is. Do not judge it as good or bad. Just notice. Gently close your mouth and start inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Closing your eyes may help you pay closer attention. This immediately can start a calming process called the relaxation response. For the next ten breaths make each breath bigger than the one before. To do that let your belly relax and expand as you inhale. As you exhale engage your abdominal muscles and pull the navel back toward your spine. This empties your lungs more efficiently cleaning up toxins in your system. By the end you should feel air coming into your lower lungs (as the belly expands), your mid lungs (the rib cage expands) and the upper lungs (your collar bones rise). It is common to notice yawning and sighing when you start to give yourself extra nourishment.
If you feel light headed or anxious go back to your normal breathing. Repeat for the next ten days and notice any changes.
Over time you will begin to breathe more deeply at other times. Even one or two deep breaths when you feel anxious or stressed can be enough to help you through a tough moment.
Lawrence was nominated for the Distinctive Educator of the Berkshires. He works with individuals and schools in the Berkshires as well as teaches yoga.
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 EDUCATIONAL CONSULTANT & LIFE COACH
"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