Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Back to The Essence
How’s life, NIP?
Great, I hope. Mine is excellent and only seems to get better. School begins today and I can’t wait to get back into the swing of things. Between the new classes, meeting new students and teachers, and the overall excitement for the content itself (philosophy and world religions), this is perhaps the most anticipated year of my teaching career. I can’t wait to dialogue with young minds about big ideas, the ones that are perhaps the most important with which to wrestle and yet seem to be largely ignored in our daily living. Paul Tillich, a famous Protestant theologian, dubbed these ideas “questions of ultimate concern,” and I personally believe that they should be engaged on a regular basis as part of our personal growth. These notions are critical because they bring us back to the essence of what it is to live and be a human being.
While life’s grand questions and ideas are at the heart of the human condition, there is something even more essential to life. If you could name what is most essential in your life besides these concepts, NIP, what would it be? Undoubtedly we might begin to name people who make the largest contribution in our daily lives; a spouse or significant other, a sibling or other family member, or perhaps a best friend. These are necessary insofar as human beings are social creatures by nature, but in an abstract way—they aren’t necessary for physical survival, for life to be sustained. So if one were to reconsider the question in this light, perhaps the conclusion would be food or water. Food, as we know, isn’t quite as important as water; we can live several weeks without food, but only several days without water. But there is still something even more elemental than that: air, oxygen in particular. We all need to breathe, as it is the life-giving oxygen that effectively runs the entire system. What’s more, we can only survive several minutes at most without it. And yet air is the physical necessity to which we pay the least attention.
Think about your breathing right now, NIP. My guess is that your natural pattern is a shallow one, each cycle of inhalation and exhalation lasting perhaps one second. Even those of us who have made great strides to improve our individual physical well-being through better diet and exercise still could make gains in overall health by learning to breathe deeply and purposefully. In doing so, we maximize the efficacy of the entire human body, which is essentially a miraculous machine that acts as a vehicle for our consciousness and its interactions with external phenomena. Taking time to breathe deeply—even if only a few times a day—will do wonders for our overall health. The real issue, however, is learning to breathe deeply well. Often times, when I suggest to someone to “take a few deep breaths,” that person reacts by heaving their shoulders to the heavens, quickly drawing in a fast (seemingly deep) breath through the nose and usually letting it out through the mouth in an exasperated sigh. Sure it might help a bit, but it is not nearly as effective as slow, methodical breathing.
The breath is a critical component of yoga, even having its own category in yogic philosophy called “pranayama.” Prana is “energy,” which makes sense in light of needing air to make the entire human machine function, and “yama” is restraint. Therefore in some sense we can think of pranayama as “breath control” or “breath management.” Additionally, there are many types of breathing techniques that one can learn, but the simplest of all is called “dirgha” (deer-ga). Dirgha breathing is slow, measured inhalations and exhalations through the nasal passages. It is generally the first pranayama technique taught to beginning students because it is the safest and easiest to learn. So safe and easy, in fact, that I’m going to give you instructions for how to do it:
Begin by correcting your posture. If you’re reading this while lying down, slumped over in a chair, or any other way than sitting straight up, it won’t be as effective. Next, try to just breathe with your belly. Take a long inhalation trying only to expand the belly outward. In reality, the stomach has nothing to do with breathing, but as your diaphragm pulls down it allows air to rush into the lungs; by distending the belly outward, it creates even more space for air to enter (in the long run, one of the benefits of dirgha is increased lung capacity, which makes this an especially helpful technique to improve cardiovascular function). By trying to fill the belly with air, you’ll undoubtedly notice that your inhalation-exhalation cycle now lasts 2-3 seconds. Once this feels comfortable, begin to let the breath flow all the way upward. Fill the belly, then you’ll feel the ribs expand slightly outward, culminating in the breath coming the very tops of the lungs while gently raising the shoulders. None of this will take conscious muscle movement on your part, NIP; just let the air do the work. Ideally, a full cycle of belly-ribs-collarbones will take 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. The exhalation should be equally controlled yet relaxed, allowing the breath to collapse the body slightly as it leaves the shoulders, chest, and then the belly. As your lung capacity improves, the full cycle could take perhaps 15 seconds (which means you’ll be taking only 4 breaths in an entire minute). Before reading further, please try this breathing technique on your own for a few moments. Perhaps even close your eyes, allow yourself to relax, and perform dirgha for a full five cycles.
How do you feel, NIP? My guess is different. Perhaps calm, steady, yet slightly energized. Breathing is a great way to get us back to center when our lives are turbulent. The breath helps us find balance in life’s tumultuous moments and allows us some mental space between external stimuli and our reactions to them. While teaching last year, for instance, I took five dirgha breaths at the beginning of each class. It kept me focused, balanced and gave me that boost of energy I needed right before the next class began. This year, though, I’m passing it on. To whom? The world. To you, NIP, to my students, to my colleagues—to anyone who wants to improve his or her quality of life by taking a few minutes each day to focus on the breath. What’s more, beginning with a simple breathing technique such as dirgha, one could use this as a springboard into a basic mediation practice. As someone who uses secular meditation techniques daily, I can attest to the simplicity and efficiency of them. Books like Rapt and The Winner’s Brain are full of neuroscience’s recent discoveries—particularly neuroplasticity—that extol the virtues of a regular meditation practice. The brain is no different than any other muscle; if worked, it will develop. Even a meditation practice as simple as focusing on one’s breath will work wonders by increasing attentional focus, memory, cognition, etc. The science is there to back it up, and having begun my regular meditation practice nearly two years ago I’ve noticed first hand these improvements in myself. By taking a simple breathing technique and working it into part of a meditation practice, you are not only positively affecting the physical body but your mental state as well.
Try paying attention to how you breathe, NIP. I cannot overstate the importance of the breath on our quality of life. To me, it is the most essential component to living this incredible, miraculous gift that we have all been bestowed. It is ultimately up to each of us to maximize our potential while we are alive, and this begins with the simplest of requirements—oxygen. By being mindful of the breath, we are apt to begin using the dirgha technique almost instinctively. In time you may find that breathing is a sort of panacea for all of life’s perceived ills; whether boredom, stress, anxiety, fear, lack of energy or imagination, breathing deeply and mindfully brings us back to our center of gravity, back to our mental safe harbor. From this place we can contend with all of life’s challenges on our own ground and feel secure in knowing that the most essential need of life is all around us—let us draw strength and serenity from it together.
Keep breathing, NIP.