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Intro to 'Breathwork'

“Breathe, stretch, shake, let it go"

This quote may sound like it comes from a famous Yogi or the Buddha or some other spiritually enlightened character. In fact, it comes from Mase, the rapper who was popular for a brief period in the late 90’s 😃 

While I don’t think he meant it as any sort of great advice for health and wellness (I think he was referring to dancing), it sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

I recalled it recently and thought, if you used that as a general guide for your health, you’d probably be alright :)

In this post, I’d like to focus on the first one — Breathe. It’s something we all do, in fact MUST do, everyday, every minute of our lives. When our breath stops, we stop, and so it is very literally our “link to life”. 

But is it just an ‘on’ or ‘off’ kind of thing, without any nuance? Of course not. In our daily lives, if we pay attention, we can notice a variety of ways in which our breath changes to accomodate things that happen to us, or the feelings and emotions we experience. If somebody jumps out from around a corner and scares you, you take a big gasp of air in, if you get nervous, your breaths become more shallow and rapid, and if you’re relaxed and calm, your breath is long and slow.

So our breath changes depending on how we feel or what happens to us, but is that all? Might it work the other way also? Might we be able to use our breath to change how we feel?

Learning about and experimenting with this concept has been one of my main focuses lately, but it certainly is nothing new.

The first Yogic texts from ancient India are profuse with references to the importance of the breath. In fact, according to most Yogic texts and traditions, this was a more foundational component of Yoga than the physical postures that many of us recognize and practice today, and it was considered the intermediary between mind and body.

They called it ‘Pranayama’, which in Sanskrit (language of ancient india) translates to “controlling/manipulating your ‘prana’ or life force”. Cool right?

Though Pranayama has not been forgotten, it’s fair to say that it’s importance has been somewhat overshadowed by the physical yoga postures or ‘asanas’, perhaps because they fit more neatly in to our pre-existing ideas about ‘exercise’ and ‘health’.

Nevertheless, several people over the years have promoted and in fact built upon this tradition of Pranayama, and have developed evermore sophisticated knowledge of the ways in which the breath can impact our bodies and minds, and have used this knowledge to introduce new techniques and methods.

Over the past year I’ve started to consult a lot more of this material, in an attempt to understand this practice better, and determine in what ways it might be applied to improve different aspects of physical, mental and even spiritual health. 

I’m excited about this health-promoting modality for a number of reasons. For one, it’s free, anyone can do it with some instruction and a willingness to experiment a little. In a world where healthcare and ‘wellness care’ can come with prohibitively high financial commitments, it’s a beautiful thing that something so powerful is free of charge.

Secondly, as I delve deeper in to this domain, the applications for different forms of breathwork only seem to expand and become more diverse. 

For example, in addition to the foundation set by the ancient Yogis, over the years several other methods of manipulating the breath to achieve different states and results have been developed. In Holotropic breathwork, developed by Dr. Stan Grof, manipulations of the breath, with the addition of music, is used to achieve ‘non-ordinary states of consciousness’, often used for healing traumatic memories or exploring repressed emotions (and much more). Another example of modern day breath-based modalities is represented in the work of Wim Hof, who uses breathing techniques to enhance the immune system and increase his physiological tolerance to extreme environments, of which he is most famous for withstanding cold and Ice.

After years of being more or less ignored by the scientific community, these practicess are now beginning to garner a lot more attention, partly because we now have the proper instrumentation to record their effect, and partly because more and more people are open to more natural methods of preserving heatlh and preventing disease, rather than solely relying on treatment once disease has emerged.

So, as you can see, I’m pretty excited about all this, and I continue to experiment on a daily basis with different forms of breathwork and how they might be used in daily life to foster greater health.

For now, I’ll just share with you one simple technique that I use in the mornings to help wake me up, and give me a clear and focused mind before I start my day. This is especially great if you didn’t sleep well, as it can help shake off that semi-tired / semi-frustrated feeling that often accompanies a poor sleep.

It’s called Kapalbhati In Sanskrit, ‘Kapal’ means the skull and ‘Bhati’ means to shine or illuminate. Physiologically speaking it helps to open up and cleanse the cranial sinuses and dramatically increase blood flow (and oxygen) to the brain. Scientific experiments done on Kapalbhati have shown that just six weeks of practice can improve pulmonary function and mental performance.

At the end of the day, what do you have to lose? Give it a try!

1. Sit in a comfortable position, legs crossed or ‘Japanese style’ is fine.

2. Take a few big deep breaths in, and full exhales out to prepare.

3. Take a large breath in to about 80% full.

4. Contract your abdomen in and up, which will cause a forcefull exhalation through the nose.

5. Allow your inhalation to happen naturally after the exhalation. You shouldn’t have to consciously breath in.

6. Repeat this as rapidly as you can 50 times. As you get more comfortable with the technique, you can increase this to 100, 200, or whatever feels best for you.

After that, you should feel calm, clear headed, energized, and ready to start an aweomse day!

Let me know how it goes!

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