“Breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness, the bridge that unites your body with your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as a means to take hold of your mind again.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
So far in our conversation about breath we’ve determined that we all need to breathe and that we are doing it right now. Thank goodness, right? But we’ve also spoken of our ability to work with the breath to affect us in physical, mental, and spiritual ways. In part 1 of this 3 part series we looked at some of the physical ways breath affects us and how we can use the breath to affect positive change. Correcting breathing mechanics is often overlooked in the big picture of our health, and the effects can be immediate. So take a deep breath and read on!
When we begin to look at the effects of breath on our mental state, things start to get really interesting. For instance, did you know that your breath changes in the presence of emotions? It’s very normal to find you are holding your breath or breathing tight and shallow when the ‘Big 3’ negative emotions are active– fear, anger, and sadness. On the other side, has something ever made you so happy it ‘took your breath away?’ Or have you sighed with contentment? By nurturing awareness of the breath, we can be more sensitive to the shift of our emotions and can recognize the emotion’s effect on our conscious thoughts and decisions.
Awareness is magical. Not only does it provide insight, it also opens the door for change. What you are unaware of will not change. When you are aware of a feeling, not only does it lose its power to control your decisions and actions, it is now vulnerable to being affected by YOU. You can clear emotions using conscious breath.
The unconscious breath reflects the mind, and conscious breathing controls and focuses the mind. This is an extraordinary thing! The breath is both the barometer of our inner world and also the mechanism to change it. Am I just a geek, or is that really powerful stuff?
And you might be thinking, “Huh. I’ve got emotions. They happen. Why should I worry about noticing them and clearing them?” Glad you asked. Feelings we ignore and repress often reappear as physical pain. The mind and body are far more interconnected than we give them credit for, and we’re learning more about the awesomeness of this relationship all the time. Your mental state affects how you feel in your body and vice versa. I explored this first hand back in December with Felt Sense. And you may be like me and think that ‘take a deep breath when you’re angry’ is cliché and too simple to work. It’s cliché because it works, and I’m learning to love the simple things. Whether it’s physical pain, anger, or anxiety, holding your breath and resisting can make it last for a long time. Acknowledging the feeling and calmly breathing into it can be a leap of faith, but it can often clear the negative feeling in a matter of minutes.
Pilates focuses very specifically on the breath, not only for the physical benefits but also for the calm, centering influence it has on the mind. Breathing happens in the present moment, not the past or the future. And it is our highest goal in Pilates to bring the body and mind together, in movement, in the present.
So try this: let’s use the Pilates exercise The Hundred as a breathing exercise to connect body and mind. You’ll need a clock with an audible ticking. While this isn’t vital, I find it is very helpful.
Lie on your back in whatever position is most comfortable. If you need a pillow for your head, go for it. If you want to bend your knees and put your feet on the floor, no problem. We’re looking for ease, so check that your position is not creating tension in your shoulders, hips, back, neck, etc.
Step 1: Once you’ve settled on a position and done a quick body scan for tension, begin to focus on your breath. We’re not trying to affect it just yet, so no judgments! You may find it easier to perceive the breath by the feeling of it moving through your nostrils, or perhaps by the feeling of cooler and warmer breath passing over your upper lip. Maybe you’re more comfortable with awareness of the chest rising or falling, or perhaps the belly. Wherever you find it is fine. It can be a really tricky thing to observe the breath with awareness and not change it, so if you find this awkward at first try not to worry. This is a very normal thing, and with practice it will feel more natural. Try to notice the depth of the breath – is it shallow or is it deep? Do the inhale and exhale match, or is one longer than the other? Is there a pause at the top or bottom of the breath or does it flow continuously?
Step 2: Now try to bring your awareness to the sound of the clock. Gradually try to move your breath into rhythm with the sound. We’re going to try for 5 ticks of breathing in and 5 ticks of breathing out. It doesn’t have to be the biggest breath yet, just try to match it up so that 5 are in and 5 are out. This can be tricky, and if you find yourself sufficiently challenged just continue to practice this. This is challenging our awareness.
Step 3: If you’ve put the breath and the sound together 5 x 5, now we’re going to add a challenge. Try taking as big a breath as you can within the 5 count. You may find that this is not enough time, or perhaps you find it’s too much! This can tell you a lot about your breath. Then try to do the same for the exhale. As Joe Pilates says, try to squeeze every drop of air from your lungs until they feel as empty as a vacuum. You’re going to be squeezing your center muscles! Just the like the inhale, you may find that 5 counts doesn’t feel long enough, or it may be too long. It is our aim to try to ‘fit’ the breath and the time together. Just like step 2, you may find this to be sufficient challenge and if so then continue to practice here. This is challenging our breath control.
Step 4: When the full inhale and full exhale match with the 5 count of the clock, we will try to bring the coordination of the body to match the awareness of mind and breath. Straighten your arms by your sides and begin to pump them up and down, sort of like dribbling a basketball in each hand. There’s no need for tension, so don’t overdo. See if you can synch it up so you are pressing to the floor on the tick of the clock. Using the basketball analogy, the tick of the clock could be the sound of the basketball bouncing off the floor. So if all if going according to plan, you are breathing fully in for 5 counts and breathing fully out for 5 counts while gently pumping your straight arms in time to the ticking of the clock. You have combined breath awareness and control with mental concentration and physical movement. The breath has become the conductor of the entire orchestra, as I like to say, and everyone is playing the same song in time together.
Notice how you feel after. Light-headed? A little lighter in body or spirit? Perhaps the squeeze of the muscles around the breath made you feel warm. The movement of squeezing and expanding may have loosened or activated some muscles in chest, belly, and back. Maybe you feel energized, or perhaps you now feel calmer and more focused. There really isn’t a right answer here, so just notice your body and mind and any changes you find. And feel free to leave a comment below about your experience, or if you have questions!
This exercise is a beautiful example of Pilates bringing the mind, body and spirit (breath) together. Breath as spirit, you say? Yes that’s right, and that will be the focus of the third and final (for now!) blog about the breath. Stay tuned!