Breath of Life

By now we all know of the tragedies and struggles emerging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  There will no doubt be more as the days and weeks go by and people try to move forward with their lives.  Soon, too, we will be able add tales from those enduring Hurricane Irma and the storms and other events that will inevitably follow.  Our hearts go out to all the people encountering so much loss.  Many of us are trying to help in any way we can.  With these events happening over such a wide swath of our country, everyone seems to know someone who is personally effected.  These are events beyond our control.  Technological advances have helped give some warning, but ultimately these events often behave in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to foresee.  No one is at fault.  It’s just the way things are.

While Houston struggles to emerge from the watery deluge, the opposite problem has been creating disaster conditions in several northern states.  These states have been experiencing extreme drought.  In addition, years of various fire suppression policies have resulted in an abundance of fuel susceptible to any stray incendiary source. As a consequence of this volatile mix, fires are burning out of control in many areas from central Canada south to Montana and beyond.  The smoke has been drifting southward for most of the summer and is now being acutely felt in my area, the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

As I looked out my window last week, I could see the haze settling among the trees.  Each morning the sun has risen as a blood red disk in the sky, its light being filtered through layers of smoke.  Last Sunday was so bad that it was difficult to be outside.  The Rapid City Journal reported that “wildfire smoke exceeded unhealthy levels” over Labor Day weekend. The smoke stings your eyes and the back of your throat.  Locally we, too, have had small fires all summer and, in fact, there was one burning a few miles south of my town a few weeks ago that caused some home evacuations.  Still we in the Black Hills have gratefully been spared any major fires this summer and we remain quite a distance from the worst of the current burn areas.  Yet here we are, having to rely on our internal filtering systems to be able to absorb the air that we humans depend on.  Those of us with weaker systems or respiratory ailments have an even harder time getting what they need from the air.  And those living closer to the fires themselves are in real danger from the many problems the heat and smoke can cause.

All of this serves to highlight both the fragility and amazing resilience of we human beings.  These conditions also remind us of the importance of the true necessities of life.  We may be able to live without our houses and our cars, but we can’t live under water and we can’t live without air. This is true for ALL human beings.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what language you speak, where your parents come from or any of the other ways in which we each think we are different from each other.  The basic necessities of life are great equalizers.   They are also things we derive directly from the earth and the sun.  We may think we can be independent and self-sufficient, but are all dependent on the gifts of the planet.  And we are all subject to the whims and uncertainties of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

As humans, we have specific requirements for survival.  We all need nourishment.  Although water is essential to our survival, no human can live under water for long without accommodations.  Which further reminds us that we all need to breathe.  We take these things for granted, allowing ourselves to get caught up in our small concerns and petty grievances.  Some of us even have the hubris to believe that they are somehow more deserving of the basics of life than others.  True, we each have our own unique qualities, but there are so many ways in which we are all in the same boat (pun intended!) just trying to survive and make the most of our short, mysterious and perplexing lives.

Being directly in the path of the smoke, I could not help but reflect in particular on the importance of each breath.  Breathing is so instinctive that we usually don’t even think about it until something interferes with it.  Yet inhaling breath is the first experience we have when we come into this world and exhaling is the final experience we have when we leave it.  Every breath in between is hugely valuable and worthy of celebration.  Yoga and Pilates teach us to focus on the breath and its relationship to movement in particular, but also to our health and well-being in general.  In fact, Joseph Pilates theorized that because most of us, to our detriment, breathe too shallowly.  We neglect to exhale fully leaving as much as 30% of our intake of air sitting at the bottom of our lungs.  Take a moment to think about that. This could mean that you’ve had some of the same stale air inside you for years.  No wonder we have lung diseases!  In fact, it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them.

On a more positive note, here’s another concept of breath that I’ve heard in different ways from several sources including yogic breathing specialist Leslie Kaminoff and native plant specialist Michael Stuart Ani.  Earth’s atmosphere has been circulating wind and water all over the planet since its inception. These elements carry with them minute traces of everything that exists on Earth.  This means that the breath of all living things has also been circulating for all of existence.  We are, therefore, connected to our ancestors – and to each other – through our breath.  This concept can be extended to reveal that each of us contains all of us and every human life that has ever existed.  Wow!  What a concept!

In yoga classes we often incorporate various breathing practices as part of the experience.  These serve as a reminder that although many of our bodily functions are not easily controlled (e.g., heart beat, cellular functions, nerve impulses, etc.) breathing is one essential bodily function that we can control to some extent.  For example, we can change the length of our inhales and exhales.  Some people can even train their bodies to go for extended periods of time without breathing.  But there is always a limit.  Humans like to test their limits to see how far they can be pushed, but there is always still a limit.  We might last a few days or weeks without food or water, but we won’t last very long without breath.

So next time you are in a yoga class and find yourself resisting the breathing practices, or forgetting to breathe in a Pilates class, try to remember and treasure the value of each breath.  This is also something you can try if you’re feeling stressed.  Bring your attention to your breathing.  It is said that focusing on your exhales can be calming.  Just letting yourself recognize each breath can help bring your mind back from whatever brink it is perched on. Breath is life and without breath there is no life.  Breathe gratefully.

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More Benefits of Mind-Body Connection

Just a short post this week to draw your attention to a couple of articles reinforcing the benefits of movement in general, and mind-body practices in particular.  Many of you probably know that as scientists learn more about brain function and how genes work, researchers have also learned that brain pathways and gene expression continue to change throughout our lifetimes.  It was once thought that brain function automatically declines as we get older.  Recent research has shown this is simply not true.  In addition, researchers are learning that the changes in gene expression brought about by mind-body practices may actually have the ability to reverse the effects of chronic stress.

A recent article in Yoga Journal , cites a study published in Frontiers of Immunology that sought to examine whether our genes actually change after engaging in mind-body practices.  The conclusion?  Engaging in these practices can actually create molecular changes that have long term effects on your health.  As quoted in the article, “ ‘Mind-body techniques like yoga or meditation are the most effective ways of reducing stress that are known to science,’ lead author Ivana Buric, a doctoral student and research assistant at Coventry University in England”.

Another article from National Public Radio (NPR) discussed a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine.  This showed that exercise in general works better at providing relief from and even preventing chronic lower back pain than a variety of commonly prescribed interventions such as back belts and shoe insoles.  According to the article “It didn’t really matter what kind of exercise — core strengthening, aerobic exercise, or flexibility and stretching.”  Dr. Tim Carey, an internist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, said that “health care providers don’t prescribe exercise nearly enough, given its effectiveness.”

So if you’re still on the fence about whether or not yoga, Pilates and other practices that connect mind and movement will help you, the evidence shows that its worth a try.  Any movement is better than no movement.  If you’re not ready for yoga or can’t find a class that works for you, try walking.  It’s simple, effective and you can do it anywhere, any time.  Just remember that if you are brand new at any movement practice, start simple and take it slow.  The point of these types of practices is to help you learn more about how your own mind and body work.  Every body is different.  So even when you’re in a class, there is no rule that requires everyone to do the same thing.  Take the time to tune into your own inner workings.  Learn what works for you.  You may be surprised to learn that you can do more than you think you can. And if you stick with it, you’ll get even better.  If you can approach any new effort with curiosity you’ll be much better off than if you let your ego take over.  Include a little self-compassion and even humor and you’ve got all the ingredients to improve your health.  Give it a try!