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"She-Bear in the Beautiful Garden" is an allegory for children of all ages, written and illustrated by Ellen Gillette. Order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at

Saturday, April 14, 2012

April 14, 2012 Breath

When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, 
but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still." 
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika

And with that (Jesus) breathed on them 
and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit."
John 20:22

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
 Psalm 150:6

I am hardly what you would call a yoga devotee, but I know Child's Pose and Downward Dog and can hold my own while I do either the Stress Relief or Flexibility portions of my $10 yoga dvd from Walmart. One of the things that the woman instructor talks about is the important of breathing.

It's not as obvious a thing as you might think. Breathing is an automatic reflex - we don't normally have to think about inhaling and exhaling. Depending on a person's physical needs and special conditions, humans breathe an average of 18,000-30,000 times a day, mostly without ever considering the amazing exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that is necessary for life on this planet.

You don't want a science lesson at the moment, perhaps, but some time when you do, you might want to google it. Mammals need oxygen, which plants give off. Plants need carbon dioxide, which mammals give off. It's miraculous thing, when you think about it, the relationship we share with other living things.

Before I break into a Disney song, however, there is one kind of breath that is of particular importance. Belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, pranayama...whatever you want to call it (and those are just for starters...there is a whole subculture of society apparently devoted to breath) deep breaths which enlarge the abdomen rather than the chest alone has proven to be helpful during times of stress and anxiety.

Recently, I was at a rehearsal for a show. Things weren't going all that well; folks were running late. The  lighting was problematic. How would we not trip over that cord while dancing? Why wasn't that mic working? The director literally came out from behind the curtain not once, but several times, and counted to ten. As he counted, his breathing slowed, even if he was unaware. As his breathing slowed, his heart rate slowed. His muscles relaxed. His tension lowered.

It's not hocus-pocus or mind over matter. That's just the way we were created. God breathed life into the first man, has breathed life into every person since in some unexplainable way. Does he wait until the baby exits the womb? Does the fact that the baby in utero receives oxygen through the mother's blood via the umbilical cord account for it? I don't know. The point is, we were meant to breathe, and the breathing process is designed to help beyond the mere intake of oxygen.

From the Textbook of Natural Medicine via Webmd:
Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you feel relaxed? The next time you are relaxed, take a moment to notice how your body feels. Or think about how you breathe when you first wake up in the morning or just before you fall asleep. Breathing exercises can help you relax, because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed. 
Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.
People often view yoga as being just one step below chanting and panhandling at airports wearing orange robes, but my limited experience has been only positive. After our son's death in 2000 I took a few yoga classes and benefited from a few hours when I just was, if you can understand what I am saying. Focusing on breathing and getting into the correct position gave my mind the freedom to be quiet, to be aware of only that room and that moment.

Fast-forward 12 years, and I have become (1) more self-aware, (2) under even more stress (not greater, just more varied). The self-awareness leads me to look for ways to take care of Ellen, to manage my own spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health instead of looking outward. At 54, I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do and be about in order to maintain, what I need to do to grow, what I need to do to more fully experience joy and peace.

One of those things is fitness. One is relaxation. Yoga happens to meet both needs at once. The emphasis on deep, full, complete breathing helps even after I've rolled up my  pink rubber mat and turned off the dvd player. Because there is no place I am likely to not be breathing, there is no place that I cannot breathe more slowly, more controlled, more deeply, more effectively.

"Breathe on me, breath of God" is an old hymn, but Hillsong, the Australian ministry, has a new version. I invite you to watch and listen to this video as you slow your own breathing down:

And isn't it interesting that yoga's Child's Pose is also a classic position of prayer? Take a look at Matthew 18:1-5:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Deep breaths, my friends. Deep breaths.