Every Breath I Take 3/09

March 2009

swimmer

When I was growing up, every single morning I witnessed my father’s labored breathing. It was disturbing. Emphysema caused him to cough, hack, wheeze and sputter. Lung cancer eventually took his life.

Is it any wonder I choose good, clean living, and that health is one of my core values?

As I am recovering from pneumonia I know a little bit about what it’s like to experience breathlessness and the effort it can take to breathe. It’s not particularly nice. Despite my best efforts, sometimes I, too, get sick. I, too, am human. Darn.

Are you taking your breath for granted?

That’s understandable, as breathing simply happens through the amazing intelligence of our body. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says, "Breathing isn’t really something that you do but something that you witness as it happens. All you have to do is watch it happening."

When babies come into the world, after that first cry, they instinctively know how to breathe. You can watch their bellies rise and fall. Eventually, things change for many of us. Our hectic, adrenaline-fueled, stressful lives cause us to revert to shallow, rapid breathing or breath holding. In doing so, we increase our susceptibility to illness and miss the opportunity to create energy, relaxation, a clear and peaceful mind as well as good health. Our breath is our number one source of energy. Are you leveraging yours?

Are you breathing in a way that supports your health? Try this simple test. In a comfortable, upright sitting position, put your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your upper chest. Now take a few relaxed breaths. If you notice movement with the rise and fall of your right hand, movement in the abdominal area, you are likely using all five lobes of your lungs. If you feel the rise and fall (it may be subtle) of your left hand, you are breathing shallowly in your chest and likely only using the upper lobes of the lungs.

You have a great opportunity before you!

The way you breathe can have a dramatic effect on your wellbeing. Each conscious breath creates a space where there was none before – an interruption in the constant stream of thought.

To bring awareness to your breathing and improve the way you breathe, try this simple 4-step exercise.

1. Again, sit in a comfortable, upright position and loosen any tight clothing.

2. With your left hand on your upper chest and your right hand on your abdomen, slowly let out your breath.

3. Gently breathe in to the count of four, so that as you fill the lungs, you feel your abdomen rise under your right hand.

4. Breathe out to the count of six, feeling your abdomen fall, pushing lightly on your abdomen if helpful. Think of a balloon filling with air and then deflating. Let the inhalation represent an intake of vital energy and the exhalation be a letting go kind of breath. Let go of all the breath. The inhalation takes care of itself and follows naturally.

When thoughts interrupt your conscious breathing, observe them and let them pass without examination and simply return to the breathing. One teacher described it as watching your thoughts come and go like big cumulus clouds on a summer day.

Breathing is a natural segue to meditation. Whether or not you use it that way is up to you. Taking one conscious breath is better than taking none. It brings you into the present moment. The more conscious breaths you take the better. The more you are aware, the more your breath’s natural depth will return. As you practice, and there are 100s of different ways to do so, your ability to use your breath as a tool will improve.

Slow and deep breathing can help relieve tension, anxiety, cluttered thinking and fatigue. And it feels so good. If you’re going to breathe anyway, you might as well do it in a way that benefits you.

Athletes, singers and dancers rely on their breath for performance. Buddhist monks and yogis use the breath as a gateway to higher consciousness. What do you think it might do for you?

Though I might have my father’s tendency for coughing and wheezing, I still have good clean living on my side. The benefit of years of conscious breathing outweighs a bout of pneumonia. I’m grateful for every breath I take. Cough. Cough. I’ll be back in fighting form in no time.