For many years my father-in-law David Smukler, one of the top voice coaches in Canada, as well as his wife Patricia Kern, one of the most revered opera singers of her generation, would tell me to just breathe.
We would be having one of our many birthday or cottage meals together and I would be discussing one of many personal or business challenges I was going through at the time and they would yell “just breathe”.
David would tell me to breathe in through the buttocks and Patricia would pipe up and say “No David, you have it all wrong. You have to breathe up through the feet”.
I never really understood what they meant by saying “breathe through my buttocks or my feet”. How the heck do I do that?
Now after many years of studying and practicing meditation, breath work is part of my regular routine (before I meditate, and before I sleep). I now understand what they meant – breath really is one of the best ways to handle a stressful situation.
Have you ever noticed when you are feeling any stress, usually the first thing that changes is your breath. Next time you are feeling any kind of stress – whether in a traffic jam, a long line-up or dealing with a work deadline – observe your breath. You will more than likely find you are not breathing very deeply.
If you’re experiencing stress and not breathing properly, you are actually constricting your muscles (or ‘holding on’). This causes your emotions start to react in usually a negative manner and this puts our bodies into the stress full response of “fight or flight mode”
Our brains learned “fight or flight” from our ancestral response to a dangerous situation – in the days of the caveman, it was a real threat such as being chased by a tiger. In today’s North American society, while we do not have any threats of being chased by a tiger, the issue is that our brain cannot distinguish from the real threat of being chased by a tiger or a perceived threat such as an emotional stressor. This means that we end up in a constant state of fight-or-flight, as we are in a constant state of low-grade (or high-grade) stress.
What happens during “fight or flight”? Our blood pressure increases, our heart rate increases causing blood to leave the digestive area (which leads to digestive issues due to poor blood flow), our bodies produce more cortisol (the stress hormone) and our blood thickens, creating platelets. All non-essential systems are put on hold while our body prepares to fight this big, raging tiger. If we live in this constant state of stress, you can see how damaging it can be to our organs, as they weren’t designed to deal with this type of constant battle.
All of these physical responses lead to many of todays leading diseases, from diabetes, heart disease and cancer to digestive issues.
When we come back to our breath it keeps us present, helps prevent the mind/body from going into the fight or flight mode. Or if you’re already in this fight or flight mode, breath can help you to break the stress cycle. Bring your attention to your breath and practice deep breathing, inhaling up from the feet (or your buttocks) all the way up your body to the top of your head, and then exhaling in reverse. This takes practice -learning to do this does not happen overnight.
Two great tools to help us with this breath are yoga and meditation.
Yoga, at its core, is the practice of effective and efficient breathing. During a yoga practice, we’re not only bringing alignment and coordination to our physical systems, we’re also creating a connection between the mind and the physical body with the breath.
Meditation teaches us to be present; to get of our heads and into our bodies through present moment awareness. Studies now show that when we meditate, our physical reaction is opposite to what happens during fight or flight.
During meditation our heart rate and blood pressure decreases, cortisol release is decreased, and our digestion improves.
Breath is presence, presence is peace, peace is wholeness and wholeness is health!
For more information and his most recent CD on “How To Meditate”
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