About Breathing, Yoga off the mat, Yoga to relieve stress

About breathing, pt 1: It’s hard to breathe

(post #1 on breathing, part of what will be a series)

Breathing. We begin in utero, and we spend our entire lives doing it. Maybe you think about breathing when you’re running, but we generally don’t pay attention to our breathing. We just do it.

Have you ever been stressed and noticed your whole body reacting? We all experience stress on the regular. You spilled your coffee. You’re twenty minutes late. The subway construction means your commute will double tonight. Your kid bit another kid at daycare. Something happened at work. You lost your keys. Your mind races, your heart-rate increases, you might sweat, your chest feels tight, you’re breathing hard (or quickly, or shallowly)?

Your body was having an acute stress response. You were in fight-or-flight mode.

Did you notice that when your hart-rate and breathing return to normal? Maybe not, because it just happened. Or maybe when you did realize things were back to normal, you looked back and realized how awful it felt at the peak of that fight-or-flight stress.

What if you could *make* those awful feelings, your reactions to stress, go away?

Poof, gone!

What if you had skills to make the most stressful situation feel almost relaxing? I know this sounds crazy, but yoga can do that. Not overnight. Not over the course of a year. (Or maybe it can for some, but it certainly didn’t for me!) The breathing you practice in yoga can do this.

I have had friends tell me that they tried yoga, but the breathing stressed them out. That was me, for many, many years. A teacher would say, “Inhale, sweep your arms above your head… exhale and fold forward.” And in my my mind, I would say, “whatever, I’m just gonna put my arms up, breathe, and bend over.”

And that was fine. It was my yoga. I was there, on the mat, primarily for exercise. Ok, I’ll admit it. It was all about exercise. I wanted that quintessential “yoga body.” (Ha! If you know me, you know that despite the many hours I spend doing yoga, I never did achieve that “yoga body.” Actually, I AM a yoga body. But I don’t have a ballerina build).

It was many, many years before I actually “got” the breathing.

The first time it clicked, I wasn’t anywhere near a yoga mat. I was 23 years old, in a doctor’s office in midtown Manhattan, in the middle of a medical procedure that would remove what turned out to be pre-cancerous cells from my body. I had never undergone a diagnostic medical procedure, and I was panicked. I found that if I mentally counted while breathing… “In, two, three, four… out, two, three, four,” and tuned out the worries I had in my head, I felt better. Paying attention to my breath gave me something to focus on. Counting the breath made me slow down. At the time, I had been “doing yoga” (generally via books and tapes… yes, VCR tapes) for about two years, and I did not make the connection with yogic breathing at all.

In fact, it would take another ten years of on again, off again yoga practice before I ever really figured out the connection between yoga as exercise and yogic breathing, and exactly how it could lower my reaction to stress when I was off the mat.

Practice. It is all about practice. You can read all you want, you can be as fit as an Olympic distance runner, you still have to practice yoga to get it.

Experiencing yoga “off the mat” was life changing for me. I immediately realized it was a skill I wanted to hone. I have been practicing for twenty years.

Yet, I am still working on it. Believe me. I am still a “beginner” at breathing. Which is why this is the first post of what will be many, many musings about breathing.

post #1 on breathing, part of what will be a series. See series About Savasana here.

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