Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Learning how to breathe (and run)

According to positive psychologists, pschoanalysts and neurologists in order to keep ones brain active and healthy it is not enough to get really good at one thing (the couch potato's version of "brain train"). One has to push oneself a little further into unknown territory. So although I believe I'm relatively good at and enjoy teaching yoga immensely and strive towards bettering my skills in this field , this apparently is not enough. I have to embark apon something different, challenging both didactically , something that is stimulating on an educational learning level, but also partake in something physically bracing. Both should be new turf, something my brain and my body are not used to.

Therefore Italian and yoga are out (as in "still THERE" but unfortunately "don't count"), Japanese and running are in.

Yes, me. Running. Never said I'd do it, always swore I wouldn't but the day has finally come. Inspired by friends, my body and Murakami's "what I talk about when I talk about running" I laced up my trainers and took to Parco Sempione.

And found I couldn't breathe. One wonderful way of discovering you can't do something is by observing yourself trying to doing it. Seeing as breathing becomes such a fundamental "red light" element to running that it simply CANNOT be ignored, I found myself concentrating on my breathing to find out why on earth it was so incredibly difficult. And it all came down to my nose. I simply wasn't using it at all. My nose whilst running (excuse the pun) became nothing more than a aesthetic facial appendix that did less for me than my socks or gloves. It was effectively unemployed. I noticed that I was breathing with my mouth alone. I was blocking the air that would have entered and come out of my nostrils. This resulted in less oxygen for my body leaving me totally exhausted and my body under stress.

This lead to further investigation. Was I breathing like this ALL THE TIME? Even when not getting over taken by anyone with running shoes? And to my amazement the answer was "well....yes. Most of the time". I tend to block my breathing not only in Parco Sempione but also during the day.

Do you? For your homework for this week I invite you to observe your breathing and to notice if you are holding or blocking your breath in any way.

If you are, here are a few reasons why bad breathing habits should be turned around.

Breathing with your nose is fundamental. Most schools of yoga encourage nose breathing rather than doing so with your mouth. This is because the nose is a very useful tool. It filters the air of germs and particles so that the air breathed in is relatively "clean", hence you protect yourself from illness. Your nose also provides a heating service rendering the air warmer and more thermically appetizing to the lungs. Through the nose the air is also humidified for the same reason.

Avoid shallow breathing is also important. Some people "sip" the air into the top part of the lungs only, this deprives the body of oxygen putting one into "fight or flight" mode. The nervous system receives the message (through lack of oxygen) that one is in danger and the whole body is put on "alert" with all the negative effects this has. It may block digestion, appetite (including sexual), muscles are tensed, natural sleeping patterns are disturbed, makeing one feel fatigued, nervous and irritable (think of wild animal running away from danger to understand how one feels when in "fight or fight" mode. It's difficult for them to "nest" to eat, to sleep to procreate etc.). Just as shallow quick breathing induces a state of stress, deep slow breathing encourages calm and tranquility. The nervous system believes one is relaxed (which is why in positions of balance in the yoga class one is encouraged to breathe slowly - the body feels more relaxed and is likely to stay where it is without falling over).

Shallow breathing (limited oxygen supply) impedes the elimination of toxins such as carbon dioxide. Every cell of our body needs oxygen and by starving them of that plus limiting our out breath, we're effectively hoarding toxins in our body . Breathing deeply means increased oxygen which equals healthy cells and healthy body. And this obviously has a positive effect on our mind.

Patanjali said "if living means breathing, then breathing well means living well".

As my maestra Beatrice Calcagono pointed out to me, animals who breath slowly have a longer life span (think elephants) and those who have shorter breathing patterns (think mice) don't live as long. Breathe slower and deeper!

Yogis believe "prana" (energy) is drawn into the body via air breathed in through the nose. And it is this energy that staves off disease ensuring the proper functioning of ones vital organs and nervous system. Breath through your nose!

When is breathing with your mouth ok? Well...when running for example. When one needs extra bursts of oxygen for energy. But in this case, for extra oxygen your nose can and should be employed too.

Alan Wallace in his book "The attention revolution" suggests that it is not sleep itself that leaves us feeling refreshed, reinvigorated and rested but perhaps due to the fact that we have a period of several hours during which time we (allow ourselves to) breathe "correctly".

So, I'm learning to breathe. And run (up to 60 minutes so far!).


Andrea said...

Credo che respirare non sia un istinto primordiale. Infatti, se non ricordo male, alla nascita ci viene un po' ... forzatamente indotto. Infatti, se non sbaglio, si piange.
Il problema è che il respiro, forse, è la prima azione che ti fa entrare in contatto con l'ambiente che ti circonda: in un certo senso ti apre a "influenze" che, almeno al primo istante, sono estranee.
Sarebbe però interessante notare come, in realtà, il respirare - immettere nel proprio sé un elemento che si pensa diverso da sé o comuque esterno - ti fa prendere coscienza o conoscenza dei tuoi organi interiori: una specie di "confusione" tra interno ed esterno del tuo io che, in effetti, potrebbe generare qualche vertigine.
Noto anche, prutroppo, che quando ci sentiamo "minacciati", cadiamo in una trappola di auto-chiusure nelle quali, forse, l'interruzione di respiro è una delle prime e anche delle più gravi (è, quella che, secondo me, genera o aggrava gli stati d'ansia).
Al contrario, ho provato a sperimentare che respirare (bene) è un po' come "abbracciare, digerendolo" l'altro da sé: in genere, si pensa meglio e si vive meglio.
C'è in più un lato del respiro che a me personalmente piace molto: l'odore delle cose, delle persone è una delle prime sensazioni che più si fissano nella mente ed è uno dei primi mezzi di conoscenza, forse, meno condizionati per comprendere in che situazione mi trovo.

Tess Privett said...

Very ineresting this comment about when we first come into this world and breathe for the first time,and just how HARD it is. (infact I may add this fact into an article I'm writing for yoga journal, if that's ok) You are right it's not as automatic and "natural" as many would have us believe and I am living proof of this; as a) I had to learn, like all of us, at birth and b) I am having to re-learn how to do this well now.

The comment about "Olfato" or our sence of smell made me laugh as guess what? I personally have a terrible sence of smell - as in I don't seem to have one, which of course is due to me being a cronic mouth rather than nose breather. WHat a shame to do away with one of life's most wonderful, potent sences due to little more than bad habits!

You've given me more motivation :-)
Thanks for your comment.

Andrea said...

Probabilmente ciascuno di noi ha i suoi sensi "preferiti" o, almeno, quelli dei quali la conoscenza gli riesce più facile.
Ho provato a fare più volte questo giochino e a scoprire la possibile - ammesso che esista - corrispondenza tra sensi più "sviluppati", per così dire, e tratti caratteriali. E', almeno, divertente.
Più seriamente, ritengo che i sensi più, personalmente, "deboli" possano essere esercitati: occorre trovare forse prima il giusto "maestro" e poi la giusta "via"; sul campo penso di avere, a prezzo di fatica, ottenuto qualche, pur limitato, successo.
Motivazioni per sensibilizzare l'olfatto?
Posso dire che, forse, si tratta di uno dei sensi più "primitivi", direi innati.
Credo che il bimbo appena nato fatichi un po' a vedere e riconosca la madre anche dall'... odore.
Se guardo agli animali, poi, il senso dell'olfatto appare più sviluppato che nell'uomo e connesso a funzioni vitali prioritarie: il cibo (caccia o ... evitare di essere preso per cibo), relazioni sociali (riconoscere il proprio partner, il proprio gruppo).