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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Focus on De-Stressing

Everyone seems to be stressed out these days.  Of course, there are many valid reasons for this.  Each of us experiences potential sources of stress every day.  Perhaps it’s the weather or traffic that’s making us tense.  Or maybe it’s a health concern, either one’s own or that of someone close to us.  We might feel overloaded at work or be faced with looming deadlines that seem impossible to meet.  There might be people in our lives that are difficult to deal with.  Loving your job, or those difficult people, doesn’t make you immune to the stress they might cause you. Sometimes just facing the reality that there are situations or changes occurring that are beyond our control is enough to make life stressful.  And if all of that is not enough, there is the climate, the planet, politics, war, intolerance, fear, etc. etc.  Yikes! It’s a wonder that we all aren’t curled up and babbling in a fetal position.

Some stress is beneficial.  In discussing stress management, the Mayo Clinic reminds us that the “brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones to fuel your capacity for a response.”  Once the threat is gone, though, we’re supposed to return to a “normal relaxed state”.  However, our 24/7 lives don’t always permit this. We can be our own worst enemies, not allowing ourselves downtime when we most need it.  Sometimes we don’t even realize how much stress has gripped us.  It becomes increasingly difficult to know when or even how to dial it down.  When stress becomes chronic it can have serious negative effects on one’s health.  According to a recent Harvard Health newsletter chronic stress “contributes to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to anxiety, digestive disorders, and slow wound healing.”

The good new is that “managing stress helps control many chronic conditions or reduce your risk for developing them.”  And here’s even more good news:  exercise in general, and mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates in particular, are among the top recommendations for reducing stress.  Among the reasons for this is that both of these disciplines encourage coordinating breath with movement.  Breathing techniques have long been known to encourage a relaxation response which can actually produce “changes in genes that influence health”. This can encourage reductions in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, digestion problems and even inflammation which has been shown to be associated with numerous health conditions.

Yoga and Pilates also encourage tuning into your body to learn how it behaves.  We spend so much time listening to the endless noise in our heads that we can forget that we even have a body.  Worse yet, our bodies can themselves become a source of frustration when they don’t look or feel the way we would like them to.  This also creates stress.  Discovering how your body works as it moves is actually fascinating if you let yourself look at it that way.  You will also begin to recognize when you are holding tension in your muscles.  The first step toward relaxing both mind and body is recognizing tension.  Many of us don’t even realize how tense we are until we start to feel what it’s like to let that tension go.  Holding tension in the body makes stressful situations that much more difficult to deal with.  Learning to release tension takes practice.  Regularly practicing mind-body disciplines like yoga and Pilates is a good place to start.

There are many different ways to manage stress. No single intervention can be the total answer for everyone.  Each of us needs to find what works for them.  And different situations may required different responses. All of this takes practice.  But instead of finding this discouraging, it might help to see it as an interesting challenge.  The benefit of any practice is that it allows you to keep trying.  If one attempt doesn’t seem to work you can try again or try something else.  Remember the goal:  better mental and physical health.  Keeping that in mind can make even the most difficult practice worthwhile.