Sunday, 29 September 2013

Breathing is Divine

Breathing. It's one of those automatic bodily responses we have little control over (yes, we can hold our breath but once we pass out, we can safely say, our breathing is out of our hands).

I've always been an advocate of breathing. It solves that age-old problem of what to do with your nose when you're not smelling stuff. 

Do it right and it can be quite sexy. Imagine the warm breath of (insert the name of sexy person here) gently tickling the fine hairs on the back of your neck like a summer breeze (albeit a very local one).

Equally, it can be the most irritating thing in the world when someone you despise insists on doing it near you. There was a guy at my college, Dean Cooper who absolutely hated one of my friends. She was, let's say, nasally challenged (her 16 year old self would be pleased to know her 30 year old self got the problem fixed as soon as was financially possible). One day, in the cafeteria, Dean turned to my friend and said 'I hate the way you breathe. I wish you'd stop'. Wow. At the time, we laughed, mainly out of shock, at the severity of his declaration but it just goes to show how upsetting breathing can be for some people.

As well as the biological functions such as distributing oxygen, the breath is also inextricably linked to our emotions. From the deep breathing of a relaxed, contented state to the dizzying state of excitement and its shallow pants.

I got a huge lesson about breathing when I recently attended a retreat (yes we're going there people), where much of my day was taken up with the consumption of chickpeas and kale, the subsequent suppression of violent farts and trying to stay awake through yoga classes.

I am not and probably never will be a fan of yoga. To me it's the boring sensible cousin of just about every other form of exercise. Any exercise where lying down is an activity is just plain silly. I've made numerous attempts to 'get' yoga. As a one-off experience its better than a punch in the face but the idea of a return visit to a class is about as appealing as being invited to resist my GCSEs. As a one off I didn't mind them but I'll take my D in Physics rather than go through that shit again.

My mind needs distractions and with yoga I'm only too aware of the racket my brain is making and even with the instructor telling me when to breathe in and when to breathe out this does little to take my mind off how slowly the minutes are passing by.

I even tried Bikram yoga, the one where they heat the studio. The good thing is, the fear of passing out takes your mind off how bored you are. You sweat - a lot. I was perspiring like a turkey on 1st December.

Don't get me wrong I've got all the gear and could participate in a downward facing dog at a moment’s notice but I just don't enjoy it.

Along my journey with yoga I learned a little about the history of the practice. It was actually originally conceived for male warriors. The purpose was to strengthen the body so they could sit. They sat so they could meditate and they meditated... So they could breathe and the breath was their way of connecting to God. Interesting.

So I’m on this retreat and I realised that perhaps I was approaching yoga the wrong way. As a pathological goal setter, I was entirely focused on achieving the poses, no matter how hard. I followed the instructions about where to put my hand or foot and when like a professional twister player, ignoring all the directions about breathing. I totally free-styled that shizzle. So half way through the weeks, I decided to take a different tack. I focused only on the breath, breathing as instructed and letting them accompany each move as the instructor told us to.

At first it just felt like something else I had to think about. Haven't I got enough on my mind without trying rest my ear on my knee! But eventually, something magical started to happen. My brain got quiet and I started to tap into… something else. Like an inner peace. Of course, as soon as I started to think about it, I lost it and went back to my usual mental noise but there was at least  now a reference point to which I could return. 

I realised, when you distilled yoga back to its original purpose, it is a great tool. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.

Since the retreat, I haven’t done a stroke of yoga but what I have done is paid much more attention to my breath. If I’m feeling stressed or experiencing the build up of negative emotions, I take a few deep inhalations and literally expel the negativity.

Obviously some things take a little more effort to expel than others (for example the residual anger after watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother) but generally speaking, it always works. Isn’t that why we breathe a sigh of relief when things work out, or why we sigh to release our frustrations?

I was once told by a very wise lady that anxiety is excitement minus breath i.e. an emotion can be transformed by letting your breath flow.

Of course there are fundamental biological reasons for breathing but perhaps, just perhaps there is also something divine to it too. 

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