Last time we covered some of the science of why it is important to bring our bodies into it's rest and repair, mode. This week lets talk about how we do that: The Breath.
Remember what I said last week:
The breath is a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious.
It is the vehicle of communication
between our mind and our body.
Lets talk about belly breathing. Our diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle, and when we breathe with our bellies we are using it how it is meant to be used. When we breathe in it contracts, pushing down and enlarging the cavity in our chest for our lungs. When we breathe out it relaxes, pushing air out. With each breath it gives our heart and other internal organs a massage. And with each breath it stimulates both the phrenic and vagus nerve, two key nerves for regulating out autonomic nervous system.
To get even more specific, with each inhale, our sympathetic (red zone) nervous system is stimulated, and with each exhale our parasympathetic (green zone) nervous system is stimulated. In this way our diaphragm is key to regulating our nervous system.
Check out this article for more of the hardcore science behind this:
So if we can do proper belly breathing, and particularly extend the exhale to be longer than the inhale we have a powerful tool to bring our bodies into rest, repair, and digest mode.
Picture an infant sleeping peacefully. Can you see their belly rising and falling? Can you see how this gentle contraction and expansion radiates throughout their whole body, perhaps seen as a gentle opening and closing of their little hands, and a curling of their toes in rhythm with their breath? This expansion and contraction in every joint of their perfect little being is in concert with the contraction and expansion of the universe, the shift from day to night to day, the movement of waves on the beach, the ebb and flow of life with the seasons.
When we breathe with our bellies we remind ourselves of that essential perfect nature within us, and our connection to all. We literally help bring the hum of every vibrating molecule in our bodies into perfect harmony with the world.
But of course, our culture is not one that encourages belly breathing. From messages to suck in our bellies and stand tall, be skinny, go go go... it is no wonder that the Buddha Belly is more often associated with a beer belly than a healthy breathing practice. Most of us breathe with our chest and shoulders. Do you have neck and shoulder pain? It might be connected to the way you breathe.
For many of you, when you first try to breathe with your belly you won't be able to. That is ok. It is easy to learn. And for those of you who can do it easily, daily practice will increase your capacity and allow you to refine your technique.
So how do you do it?
Start with your hands on your belly, your thumbs and pointer fingers touching, making an upside down triangle.
Put the point where your thumbs meet on your navel.
Now breathe gently and regularly in and out of your hands. If after a few breaths you don't experience any rise and fall, on your next exhale push your thumbs gently into your abdomen and use your muscles to pull your stomach in, emptying fully. Then on the inhale relax your abdomen and push your hands out.
Do this every day for a few minutes. If it is hard for you at first, try it lying down on your back with your knees bent. Experiment with different positions, such as sitting versus standing.
When you feel ready, start extending the exhale, making it longer than the inhale. Try breathing in through your nose and then out through pursed lips, as if blowing air through a tiny straw. Empty fully, extending it as long as you can. Then breathe in deep and repeat.
Soon you won't need in the feedback of your hands on your belly to do it. And perhaps this will even start to become your default way of breathing. But if you forget to practice for a while and it feels hard, start with the hands on your belly again. Next time you are stuck in traffic, walking the dog, or "bored" and about to pull out your phone try instead doing some belly breathing.
Breath is life, Prana, and as you practice this you will find your mind becomes more joyful, less fearful, and more clear. Your stress and anxiety levels will decrease while your capacity to take on more will increase. Your digestion will benefit and you will crave less sweets. And your body may even switch to burning fat as it feels safe and secure and does not feel a need to store excess calories for the next potential famine.
Have fun and see how big you can make your Buddha belly! And next time I will give you some variations on this simple technique to harness the power of your breath and take it even further.