While lamenting the distortions that my Kindle Fire HD has introduced in my reading habits, I did managed to finish a book this past week. In fact, I recommend that you buy a print copy because it comes with an audio CD that may be helpful in getting the knack for a breathing technique.
The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotionsby Doctors Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg (Shambhala, 2012) is a useful primer on why you should develop a breathing practice even if you are not into yoga. It reviews the scientific research on the use of breath work in improving resilience to stress as well as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and trauma-induced emotions and behaviors. Brown and Gerbarg recommend a simple technique that slows your breathing to five breaths per minute, combined with simple visualizations of moving energy along the spine or from the head to the soles of the feet. They call it Coherent Breathing, and it can be modified to resemble the ujjayi (Darth Vader) Resistance Breathing that most yoga practitioners already know. I’ve used the technique to slow my mind down before going to bed or while seated on a train or waiting in line.
The key is to slow down the pace, and that can be harder than you’d expect. For instance, with my sudarshan kriya practice, the tendency is to speed up the pace and make it energizing. After working with the practice for a while, you’ll catch on to the pace and it will become second nature. The slower pace makes it easier to slip into a meditative mindset.
The CD contains a half dozen instructional takes on breathing techniques, and then it moves into a full 15-minute session, plus a short body scan.
More information is available on their website. There are also some audio files of radio interviews, podcasts and other material. Additional information can be found at Coherence, which goes into science behind the technique.
Alan Little again comments on an entry in this blog and an article by Kelly McGonigal. He makes clear that there is more to ujayi breath than just trying to sound as if you have asthma.
My acupuncturist, Kelly Welch, tells me that both in Western and Chinese medicine there’s not much known about the lympathic system.
For those who have not investigated the Art of Living side of the site, the daily practice includes deep, rhythmic breathwork. Three-part breathing with a 4-4-6-2 pattern ujayi breath; three rounds of bastrika (a bit complicated to describe in this short entry) and kriya sudarshan, which includes three rounds of slow (20 breaths), moderate (40 breaths) and rapid (40) breathing. Some observers say that the kriya technique is a form of hyperventillation. That might be the case at first, but after the first few session I have not noted any symptoms of hyperventillation. It’s 15-20 minutes of very active diaphragm movement — without having to breaking into a sweat as you would with exercise. I suspect that much of the benefit comes from the effect on the lymphatic system.
The Art of Living Foundation promotes kriya practice specifically for medical conditions, like cancer, HIV and depression. It says that it has medical research to back up these claims.
I never thought of meditation as being pivotal to my taking up yoga and pranayama. I wanted the benefits that yogic breathing gave. Meditation seemed like a non-essential frill. None of my yoga or AOL instructors seemed too keen on pushing me in that direction. I was pretty clueless even though I was closer than I had ever thought.
Actually, I had been laboring at meditation without even realizing it. I had Jon Kabat-Zinn’s CDs about mindfulness meditation, but it seemed like such hard work to do the exercises. In December I started doing the gentle yoga exercises. I could not focus my mind on the meditations. I’d go through the motions, and scratch my head about what I was doing wrong.
But after I started getting more serious about my yoga practice and started seeing the benefits of my AOL kriya, I suddenly got the knack. The key lay in my breath — once my breath was let free, unfettered, expansive, it was a much bigger target for my mind to focus on. I could focus either on my belly moving up and down or the air going through my nostrils or the sound of my breath. They all worked.
Once I tasted the release of meditation, I was a convert. Just one session turned into a daily practice. Now I practice meditation for about 10-30 minutes every night. I never really had a problem with time — I started out at 30 minutes and only drop down the time when I’m really tired. Meditation slows down my brain and stills my body. I usually find myself going to bed earlier because I take my meditation time and then go straight to bed. I usually hit my pillow and am out like a light — I used to toss and turn in bed for hours.
I also find myself grabbing short sessions during the day — riding the Metro, after lunch in a quiet room at the OAS, waiting to pick up my daughter.
I am looking for a chance to approach meditation more systematically. I will take some classes at the Insight Meditation Center or the Shambhala Center, both of Washington. Of course, with the Web, there is lots of help online to get you pointed in the right direction. Have a look at my resource gateway.