Sunday, July 27, 2014

More Than Just Coping: The Power of Breath

Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of posts online about various fitness challenges being suggested.  A popular one involves doing 30 seconds of plank every day for a week, and gradually increasing to a 2 minute plank over the course of 1 month.  Just to be clear, “plank” is when you hold your body perfectly level to the floor, usually holding yourself up on the forearms and toes, but can also be done from the palms, knuckles, or knees if modifications are needed.  The objective is to hold the body perfectly rigid, like a board. People who attend my Pilates classes regularly know how much I love to include planks.  The plank position is a fantastic strength building exercise for the core and lower back, with some bonus toning in the arms and chest.  In my classes we generally do a set of 3 planks (30 seconds, 45 seconds, and last for a full minute).  I suspect this 30 seconds to 2 minute plank “challenge” I’ve been seeing is intended for fitness beginners or people who don’t currently have much core strength, but want to start building that foundation up reliably.  For those people, I highly recommend it, and hope that it’s actually being tried and not just reposted.

For me, however, or people that I work with regularly, holding a 30 second plank once per day is not remotely a challenge.  So, I devised a different plank challenge for myself that would allow me to harness the benefits of holding plank position, but still offer a reasonable amount of challenge.  I decided that I would start with a 2 minute plank, push up into a 5 minute downward facing dog, and then level back out to a second 2 minute plank. I would then bookend it around my day, once in the morning, once in the evening.    Every week I decided to increase the length of the plank by 1 minute until I eventually reached a 15 minute set (meaning 5 minute plank, 5 minute downward facing dog, 5 minute plank).  I feel that 15 minutes twice a day is a reasonable amount of time to commit to a personal challenge.  Once reaching that goal, I decided I would add leg raises to increase the challenge without increasing the time.

At the moment, I am only in the second week of my self-proclaimed challenge. For the record, it’s hard! But that was the point.  I wanted to be challenged.  It takes my focus, but is not out of my reach.  And it has brought my attention back to one of the primary lessons I teach my clients: everything is easier when you breathe with purpose.  Sometimes when I get to the end of my day, after teaching Yoga, Pilates, Water Aerobics, Pilates again, and taking a 2 mile walk around the lake at lunch time (because I have also challenged myself to take an average of 15,000 steps per day—it’s good to have goals), I will be completely exhausted.  My focus and willpower during my evening set of planks is often flagging.  I will decide, yes, I am committed, and I’m going to stick with my plan, but that final minute of plank takes every ounce of my willpower to see it through.  The thing that gets me to the finish line is my breath.  I do a very deep, moderately paced, forceful breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth.  It goes in cycles of about 3 seconds in, 3 seconds out, fully using the diaphragm.  This breathing technique focuses me.  It steadies me.  It keeps me in plank, using good form, even when I’m tired, and carries me through to the end with strength and grace. (Grace on both a physical and mental level.)

Right now, I’m using this breathing technique to master a difficult physical routine that I want to achieve.  But I have used it in many other situations before.  That is what I want to share with you today.  Not the benefits of plank or the thrill of succeeding at such a challenge (and I am totally killing it so far, but the way), but to share the power of this simple breathing technique.

I have most often heard it called “The Energizing Breath,” but I’m sure there are many other names for this technique.  You don’t need a lot of lung power to begin using it, but using it will quickly increase your power and lung capacity.  You can use it to focus yourself,  and as I am doing with my current endeavor, to carry yourself through a physical activity.  You can use it for pain relief.  If you’re in chronic pain, or have a sudden pain that you can’t immediately remedy, doing this breath helps reduce the pain so that you can function until the pain subsides.  This technique also works well with emotional pain.

Over the past year, as I’ve been dealing with the grief of my mother’s untimely death, I’ve tried a wide range of things to help me cope with the oppressive weigh of that grief.  Having goals helps.  Having awesome friends and community involvement helps, too.  But sometimes, the pain is too much.  The inside of my chest feels like it’s collapsing in on itself.  My heart beats too fast, my vision gets tunneled, and I feel like someone has kicked me in the gut.  Grief manifests in many forms.  For me, this is the physical manifestation of my grief over living in a world without my mother.   It feels like I’m going to be crushed under the weight of it.  But if I remember to do the Energizing Breath, steady, deep, forceful breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, the pain begins to dissipate.  It’s like turning on a light in a very dark room.  Every time the grief tries to consume me, I do this breath.  It clears away the pain until I can bare it again.  I still feel the sadness, but it doesn’t suffocate me.  Using this breath, I do more than just cope.  I move forward.  I heal little by little.  I integrate my loss instead of being consumed and stagnated by it.

This is my offering to you today: focus, mental clarity, improved lung capacity, emotional and physical pain relief, and stress relief all in one.  This technique can also be used to help wake you up in the morning or calm you down before bed at night.  It’s totally free and takes practically no training to master.  Unlike other breathing techniques, such as what you might use during meditation, you can begin doing this one right away.  You will become better and better at it over time, but you don’t have to learn how to do it, or practice it in order to use it successfully.  You just need to try it.  Put force behind the breath.  Pull in through the nose quickly; push out through the mouth with purpose.  That’s it.  Breathe really hard as DEEPLY as you can.  That’s all there is to it.  Put it in your toolbox and use it every chance you get.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What a Relief

The more I seek my own self improvement, on all levels (mental, physical, and spiritual), the more I have come to realize the vital importance of stress relief as a part of my daily training.  Ask just about anyone what they know concerning the effects of stress, and they will tell you that "stress can kill you," but it does a myriad of other degradation along the way.  The path of stress is not a quick course to the grave; it is a long and agonizing way to put yourself under. It's also nearly unavoidable.  However, you can always choose how you're going to deal with it so that you can reduce or negate its effects.

Stress can manifest as physical problems like chronic pain or fatigue, elevated blood pressure, and gained weight that won't go away.  It can cause mental and emotional problems like anxiety, anger, and depression.  The build up of stresses can block our spiritual path leading us to self-sabotage, self-doubt, and even abandonment of our goals and dreams.  Stress has become so pervasive in our lives that we're willing to write it off as "the norm" and accept the problems that can arise  rather that addressing the issue itself.

I often talk to clients who are suffering with physical or mental issues that are clearly stress induced, and when I ask them "What do you do for stress relief every day?" they'll respond with "I don't have time to deal with it every day."  But what if just a little "work" on your stress relief reduced your pain and fatigue to the point where you could actually finish goals you've set for yourself?  Is that not worth it?  What if the little bit of conscious, purposeful stress relief is the missing element  in your current plan of action that would allow you to reach your success?

Here's a great example, and I use this one because it turned out to be true for me.  Let's say you want to lose some weight. You track your exercise, food, calories, water, vitamins, and hormone levels religiously, but nothing works.  The harder you work at it the more you actually gain weight.  You're being healthy, you're being active, you're being hydrated, and your doctor says there's no physical reason why you can't lose weight.  What's wrong?  Too much stress, not enough relief.  No matter how healthy you work at being, your body feels the stress and holds on to every ounce of water and fat to keep you protected from the pervasive threat you're always feeling.  This makes it feel like all your hard work is for nothing, so you give up.

Now, let's say you add little daily stress management to your exercise, healthy food, vitamins, and filtered lemon water.  The change can be dramatic.  When something you do is successful that, in and of itself, is a form of stress relief that can lead to even greater successes.

How can you find the right stress management to add to your programs?  It's very individual, but the key is, it must be conscious and purposeful.  You need to be aware within your process, so things like watching TV and playing internet games, while entertaining and not stressful, are not effective for stress relief.  The most effective stress relief will allow you to remain in the moment with them.  Some examples of things you can do that can help you stay in the moment: play with your dog or your child (and that means stop everything, be in that moment, and enjoy the play), sing, dance, write in a journal, do a senses walk, grow plants, meditate, do just 5 minutes of deep breathing, soak in the bath tub while doing your deep breathing.  There are tons more, and what works for you is going to be totally individual to you and what fills you with joy and freedom.  The key is to choose an active form of stress relief rather than a passive relaxation that shuts your brain off.  Stay engaged in your stress relief process.  Do at least one purposeful stress management activity every day.  It could make all the difference in attaining those goals that seem just a little out of reach.  It could also help you live longer.  And if you're going to live longer, you might as well feel good and be happy while you're at it.