Embracing your Breath

With the beginning of the holiday season, I’m finding myself feeling heavily loaded with holiday preparations.  We’ve just wrapped up Thanksgiving with our extended family, having hosted 5 people the previous night and seating a total of 19 for dinner.  I really like being able to host, even though it’s an intense several days of cooking, cleaning, organizing, and checking my list multiple times to figure out what’s been overlooked.  And now that there’s a bit of a break between holidays, it really feels like a chance to breathe and to let go (for at least a short while) the intensity of the holiday preparations.

Fall is a time of letting go.  Trees let go of the leaves that served so well in spring and summer, knowing deeply that new leaves will take their place.  It is the season of the teacher, who “lets go” of skills and knowledge, knowing deeply that among his or her students, there will be some who will grow to take their place.

This is also the time of year to embrace the breath and to give gratitude to the lungs that allows oxygen to enter our bodies, as well as letting go of the carbon dioxide produced within the body.  The lung is also associated, in Eastern tradition, with the large intestine, another organ designed to help the body “let go” of what is no longer serving oneself.

The structure and mechanics associated with breath are pretty amazing. Air enters through either the nose and nasal cavity or through the mouth. It then passes through the pharynx and epiglottis, into the larynx, and then enters the trachea. The trachea divides into two major bronchi that then enter the lungs and divide multiple times to get smaller and smaller until the air reaches individual alveoli.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer, via Unsplash.com

The primary muscle that enables breathing is the diaphragm, which lies under the lungs. When your diaphragm moves towards the belly, it creates the extra space in your lungs to allow fresh air to enter. Releasing the diaphragm returns it to it’s resting position, and healthy lungs will exhale old air without an explicit effort on your part. To know if you’re using your diaphragm – place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. When you inhale, your lower hand should move outwards; exhaling will bring your hand inwards. If you notice that the hand on your chest is moving instead of the lower hand, you’re using a less efficient breath.

Man may exist some time without eating; a shorter time without drinking; but without breathing his existence may be measured by a few minutes.

The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath, by Yogi Ramacharaka and William Walker Atkinson

From a physical perspective, both heart and lung health are enhanced through aerobic exercises such as running or calisthenics or interval training.  Breathing exercises, also called pranayama, also enhance lung health. The diaphragmatic breathing described above is one example of pranayama. Another breath practice, called uijayi breathing, keeps the mouth closed, with inhales and exhales through the nose. This style of breathing is used in yoga practices such as Ashtanga, and it’s designed to both help create inner “heat” and to calm the nervous system. (I’ll be writing more about breathing in an upcoming post…)

There are other practices in Eastern traditions that are also believed to enhance lung health, involving visualization and sound.  Visualizing a healing white light entering the lungs brings the mind’s energy to this very important organ.  In Daoist practices, making the sound “sssss” is believed to create a vibration that is healing.  (I imagine that “sss” as the sound of air coming out of an inflated innertube...) In our Health Defense sessions, we also practice the Inner Smile, a kind of silent blessing to this organ that serves us. Each of these can be done individually or in combination.

There are also a number of Hasta Mudras (shapes made with the hands) that are said, in Ayurvedic tradition, to have positive impacts on the lungs and its partner organ, the large intestine. Chandrakala mudra is one of the simplest, and is said to stimulate lungs, and open airways. Hamsi mudra is said to address the emotions of depression and sadness that are associated with the lungs. My favorite mudra for lungs is Bramara (Bee) mudra. It might have something to do with the fact that my name, Deborah, also means “bee”. Bramara mudra is believed to help in allergic reactions and to sooth coughing [1].

Chandrakala (crescent moon) mudra
Hamsi (Containing the Spirit) mudra
Bhramara (Bee) mudra

** Mudra benefits shared here are described in the book, Mudras of India, by Cain Carroll and Revital Carroll.

If you’ve ever practiced meditation, and have been told to “follow the breath”, it can be easy to wonder how “inhale” and “exhale” can be something worthwhile to explore. Next time, perhaps start noticing all of the elements that create an inhale, focusing on sensation versus thinking about the sensations. How many separate instances of movement of the belly can you notice? When is the instant that the inhale actually starts? Can you feel the ribs expand outward and perhaps even your back expand as you inhale? And similarly for exhales, notice the very instant the exhale starts. Perhaps feel how many different parts of the body are releasing with the exhale – not only associated with the lungs, but perhaps other muscles will release as well if you “let go” of the breath with kindness and mindfulness.

And so we’re back to the idea of letting go. Before my mother breathed her last, my father lovingly encouraged her to “Let go”. It was so brave and generous of him to say so. And perhaps if you find yourself in a place of difficulty, you can also breathe and let go of the need to make things any different than they are at this moment, finding the grace to act in kindness and compassion.

In lovingkindness,