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.

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