Two weeks ago I attended a training workshop for us volunteers participating in the non-profit Yoga for Cancer Care support group. The goal was to highlight evidence-based strategies of why yoga works in illness and the role it plays as a complementary tool to provide relief during stringent cancer treatments.
Of course, yoga is so much more than a form of exercise, it is a way of life that offers the participant a chance to reconnect with her body as well as her mind in all aspects of life, not just during a pose on the yoga mat.
An integral part of yoga is learning how to breathe correctly. No, not just during a pose when you are focusing so intently that you forget to breathe, something that never seems to go unnoticed in class by your sharp-eyed instructor. Learning to practice pranayama, the yoga lingo for breathing exercises, is a tool for us to use well beyond the confines of our yoga mat. And it is for FREE! We can teach ourselves this golden gem of a tool, and USE IT every single moment of our awake time, all it takes is allowing ourselves to become aware of our breath.
When do we actually notice that we breathe at all, usually we just take it for granted, it is something that just happens, without ever pausing to say “THANKS” to our body for keeping us alive.
When do we ever focus on how we breathe? Are we aware of times when we breathe so shallow and superficially that this in itself actually causes a stress reaction in the body – an overall tightness in the chest, possible muscle contractions, feeling winded.
Learning how to use our breath is such a powerful tool to help us through a difficult moment, and to teach ourselves how to break a habitual response to a stressful situation. And it starts with becoming aware of our breath, right now.
What moves when you breathe in? Yes, I mean right now. Breathe in. Look down at your torso. Which part inflates with your in-breath? Breathe out. Which part deflates? How long is your out-breath?
If you are like me, when I first did this simple exercise, I smugly assumed that I knew what I was doing, of course I was a good breather, breathing in real deeply, inflating my entire upper torso, using my entire lung capacity. Breathing out caused a little belly bump, fast and quick.
Well, I was put straight on this assumption! I was activating the secondary muscles of respiration, the shoulders, upper chest and upper back, which leads to more fatigue in the long run.
Real, health-enhancing breathing involves actually using your primary muscle of respiration – your diaphragm. When you breathe in, the first thing to move out should be your belly area, like inflating a balloon. Next move your breath up your spine into your rib cage, feel the top of the lungs inflate and let your collarbones rise up.
Begin breathing out at the collarbone level, moving the breath down slowly through your lungs and ending with a deflated belly, drawing your abdominal muscles in, letting your belly button get sucked to the back of your spine. Your exhalation should ideally be at least 1.5 times the length of your inhalation. So, if breathing in takes you to the count of 4, then breathe out to the count of at least 6. Find your own counting rhythm, some of us have a larger lung capacity than others. Make each breath flow freely and smoothly, irrespective of how many total in and out counts.
The benefits of this type of breathing are immediate: it calms you down, brings you back to your core strength, helps you gain perspective. Stop yourself often during the day, and become aware of your breath. Correct your breathing if necessary, and observe the effects this has on you. I used this consciously during my radiation treatments, when breathing is part of the procedure, as I was required to hold my breath during the radiation moment. As you are anxious anyway, this can become pretty stressful. However, using conscious breathing, and throwing some visualization in it too (but this is the subject for another blog…), helped calm myself down and made enduring the treatment a whole lot more bearable.
So Namaste everyone, and BREATHE away…
The mission of Yoga for Cancer Care is to offer Yoga practices to nourish mind, body and spirit to people whose lives have been affected by cancer, empowering them to be active participants in their well-being. Cancer retreats are held 2-3 times per year at the Steeplechase Cancer Center in Somerville, NJ.