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Let’s all take a deep breath…

Have you heard that deep breathing is a good way to calm down and relax? Well, I’m here to say it’s true! …except when it’s not. Like the day I left meditation class with my heart racing because I’d overdone it on a breathing exercise. I was surprised because this wasn’t my usual experience in meditation class. What had happened and why?

 

Your breathing is linked to your nervous system

The explanation for my odd reaction is simple. I had, through breathing (and probably a lot of attitude), revved up my heart and charged up my nervous system for a confrontation –when I had no need of fighting anyone. Our breathing and physiological state (and therefore our emotional state) are causally linked. Breathing is part of a network of systems with many moving and interrelating parts. It ebbs and flows with the risings and fallings of your autonomic nervous system and is a key player in autonomic regulation – when you can access it.

Before I get into that, it’ll be helpful to review the fancy terms and some basic facts about your nervous system.

 

Your nervous system in brief

The human nervous system (and probably that of all animals with brains, but don’t quote me on that) has two main parts: the Central Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System. The CNS is made up of your brain and spinal cord. The ANS is made up of everything else – all the nerves running from the spinal cord out into your body. Nerve signals travel between CNS and ANS, between your body and your brain, and that two-way communication is essential. The rest of what I’m going to share sounds like it’s all about the ANS –and it is, but I just want to make to point out that the ANS is sending and receiving signals to the brain throughout it all!

Your Autonomic Nervous System
Within the ANS there are subsystems that are in constant interplay for each of us throughout the day, regulating our response to our environment (both external and internal) so that we can stay alive. These subsystems are useful to know by name, because I’ll refer to them a bunch:

  • Sympathetic nervous system – responsible for preparing the body/brain to respond to danger. A sympathetic response charges up our muscles and brain for a physical fight or flight. This process diverts resources away from slow thinking, digestion, reproduction, and immune system function.
  • Dorsal vagal system (part of the parasympathetic nervous system) – responsible for shutting down the body/brain as a last attempt to survive a threat. A dorsal vagal response freezes the body and/or mind, essentially “playing dead.” This can explain fainting, and also depressive moods and behaviors.
  • Ventral vagal system (part of the parasympathetic nervous system) – responsible for restoring or continuing the body/brain in a state of safety, healing, and life maintenance. A ventral vagal response puts the brake on any sympathetic or dorsal activity and resources are re-routed to all those systems necessary for not just surviving, but also thriving.

 

How do these responses affect your breathing?

Changes in nervous system activity can change your breathing (and vice versa).

When your sympathetic response charges up, your breathing rate speeds up as part of the need to power up your muscles with more circulating blood and oxygen. Rapid or sharp or irregular breathing is a sign of an SNS response.

When you start to move back into a ventral vagal response, your breathing returns to normal and can be steady or deep and slow.

 

It goes both ways

You can also use breathing to shift your nervous system activity. We use breathing to move into a ventral vagal response all the time with practices like calm deep breathing and lengthening your exhales in a comfortable way. There are simple breathing practices you can learn and use when needed or daily, and I’ll share two of my favorites next time.

For the other side of the ANS, you might also use breathing to stir up the sympathetic response to prepare for a physical challenge. This is how I got stuck with my heart racing –except that it wasn’t intentional! The primary breathing practice we use in ISHTA meditation uses a challenging breath ratio, and I was working on lengthening my breath retention. Normally this would be ok with the long exhales and shorter inhales. But I was pushing my body further than it was comfortable going. Without realizing it, I had entered into a competition with myself, waking up my sympathetic response. My body was ready for a fight!

After that, I wasn’t really in a state to use “deep breathing” to calm myself down, at least not without help. Luckily, my next appointment was a teaching swap with a colleague and friend who immediately understood the state I was in and suggested I teach rather than be put through exercises. Seeing a friendly face, hearing a reassuring voice, and getting to teach (which usually grounds and centers me) all helped me gradually shift back into a ventral vagal state.

My meditation episode came about by taking a conscious practice too far. It was quickly brought on, but also pretty quickly resolved. Had I been alone, I’m confident I could have calmed myself down one way or another because I know my body well, know what calms me, and am used to doing practices to encourage a certain body/mind state. I’ve learned how to regulate my nervous system responses using various practices.

What happens when you don’t know how to regulate?

We all have the same ANS, the same capacity for engaging with it – either to take conscious control of our body/mind state and to be shifted “automatically” in response to an event, a thought, or a trigger.

Triggers awaken a stress response that was once useful for survival. These are sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses that were stored in your body/mind for quick retrieval in future – in case your life is threatened again in a similar way. And while our nervous system is really good at protecting us, it’s not always so good at splitting hairs when it comes to things that may or may not be life threatening. A loud sound is a loud sound. A rejection is a rejection. Whatever your body or mind links with a past experience is likely to be broad enough that there are other examples in the world. Your nervous system still calls on protective action before your mind has a chance to assess what kind of threat you’re experiencing – a manageable one or a life threatening one. This makes what might otherwise be a manageable experience into a trigger for a strong response.

As we’ve seen, your nervous system state and your breathing are intertwined, and how you breathe may trigger or come about with a triggered stress response. More importantly, you might breath the way you do to keep you in a protected state. Changing it, even if it would eventually be useful, might in any given moment be frightening and feel impossible. And so if “take a deep breath” initiates a sympathetic response, whether it’s to avoid a direct threat or to avoid lowering your shield, the calming effect of lengthening and slowing your breathing will be inaccessible in that moment. Thankfully, you can learn how to gain access again. (Movement practices on Moved to Heal are all created with this learning in mind.)

 

Breathing is universal and personal

Breathing is very personal. In my teaching, I avoid instructing the breath, offering instead options, suggestions, and rhythms you can choose to follow or ignore. I encourage you to find your own way in, over time. Once you can feel comfortable tapping into your breath as a resource, you can use it to help regulate your ANS (we call that autonomic regulation). When you start working with breathing as a practice, there may be some experiences along the way that are unsettling or uncomfortable or even scary, which is why it is helpful to start breath work with a teacher who can help you regulate in the moment through other means (more on that in a future post). If you’re a survivor of trauma, you might consider seeking out a therapist with some kind of body-based modality in their methodology (such as trauma-sensitive yoga, somatic experiencing, NARM, and many others). Of course, if you’re already seeing someone you like who doesn’t have that experience, consider trying a separate body-based practice, which might be as simple as joining a yoga class, either one that is expressly trauma-informed or taught by a teacher with trauma-informed training (such as my Sunday classes!).

In a follow up post, I’ll share some breathing practices and suggestions for how to find a comfortable way in whenever you’re ready to try them.

 
Be moving, be true, be you,
esther
 
 

photo credit mahdis mousavi, found on unsplash

Everything has a beginning + an ending

Most beginnings and endings get a lot of our attention. Whether in a good way or a dreaded way, they tend to be exciting. Some beginnings + endings, however, don't always rise up to our notice because we experience them more like middles. Like with breathing or meditating. Each breath, each moment of shifting awareness, has a beginning moment, a continuing, and an ending. It wouldn't be useful to always be aware of these, and yet as a meditation practice, turning your attention to one breath or moment beginning and ending and becoming the next breath or moment could be transformative.

I invite you to let that idea be part of your practice today, or you can ignore and just practice in the way that suits you best! Enjoy!
 
Listen to "Ep 501 - Beginnings + Endings + Swaying to Stillness Meditation" on Spreaker.
 

What’s in this episode of Everyday Meditation?

  • Welcome + getting situated, with a few thoughts on beginnings + endings
  • A little lead-in movement: Seated side stretch
  • Breathing practice: 4-part Breathing
  • Meditation technique (awareness kriya): Sway to Stillness
  • A little re-grounding movement: Reclining knock knees

As always, I encourage you to make yourself at home in this practice: substitute, modify, do as you need to feel safe and present, including taking breaks!

 

Integration suggestion

After listening to the episode, perhaps check in: did you notice something that you want to carry with you? If yes, maybe jot it down in a notebook or record a voice memo to help you remember!

 

You can give it a try when you're ready

Listen to "Ep 501 - Beginnings + Endings + Swaying to Stillness Meditation" on Spreaker.

 
Be moving, be true, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit halacious, found on unsplash

Inhales, exhales -- is there more to our breathing than just these two sides of the breath? Yes! I like to notice the four "parts" of your breathing: inhale, transition, exhale, transition.
 

What’s in this episode of moved to heal?

I introduce the "four parts" of breathing in two ways.

The first way is to notice what's already happening:

  • there's an inhale
  • then there's a moment of transition between inhale and exhale
  • then there's an exhale
  • and then another moment of transition between exhale and inhale

The second way is to try engaging with these four parts where you choose. Here are a few options:

  • allowing fuller or longer inhales and exhales
  • allowing more pause in the transition
  • creating an even rhythm between inhale and exhale

I guide you through this practice step by step, and you can choose to skip or stay with any area you like. You can do this Moved to Heal practice while reclining, seated, standing, or moving.

 

Integration suggestion

After listening to the episode, perhaps take a moment to check in: did you notice something that you want to remember or follow up on? If yes, maybe jot it down in a notebook or record a voice memo to help you remember.

 

You can give it a try when you're ready

Listen to "4 part breathing" on Spreaker.

Be moving, be true, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit ashim d silva on unsplash

Breathing happens with and without our conscious input. For example, most of the time we can consciously take a "deep" or "full" breath when we desire. This is just one way of engaging with our breathing. This practice is about tapping into that conscious engagement.

 

What’s in this episode of moved to heal?/h6>
In this practice, I'm inviting you to engage with your breathing by directing your breath attention to four different areas of your torso. When put all together, these four areas comprise what I'm calling a 360 degree breath. You can do or not do any of the practices, and in whatever manner or degree you choose.

The idea behind the 360 breath is to help guide your breathing to expand into areas its not used to going. I think of this as a follow up to bringing awareness to where your breathing *is* comfortable. If you're not sure about what is and isn't comfortable for you, I suggest you use this practice as a sort of "check in" --or start with the "observing your breathing" episode.
 

The 4 areas of 360 breathing
  • belly / abdomen
  • upper chest + back
  • lower ribs / middle torso
  • back (from waist to shoulders)

I guide you through this practice step by step, and you can choose to skip or stay with any area you like. You can do this Moved to Heal practice while reclining, seated, standing, or moving.

 

Integration suggestion

After listening to the episode, perhaps take a moment to check in: did you notice something that you want to remember or follow up on? If yes, maybe jot it down in a notebook or record a voice memo to help you remember.

 

You can give it a try when you're ready

Listen to "360 degree breathing" on Spreaker.

Be moving, be true, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit aynaz shahtale on unsplash

Where breathing sometimes overwhelms my practice of Hum Sa kriya, I find the opposite to be true with Sat Yam kriya: breathing always leads me in to the kriya technique in an effortless way. But that's just me! Your experience may be different, similar, or not really even in the same ballpark!
 

What’s in this episode?

Before teaching Sat Yam kriya, I share my experience with breathing and Sat Yam kriya (in the How To episode) -- and what I mean by "being led by breathing."

 

How can you use this practice?

You might try this practice to bring attention to how your breathing does or doesn't play a role in your meditation practice (and if you tuned in last week, perhaps compare with your experience in Hum Sa kriya).

I also love Sat Yam kriya for feeling connected to something bigger than me -- even just the literal space around me, wherever I am.

Give it a try when you're ready

SPREAKER EMBED

 
Be moving, be true,
esther
 
 

photo credit anthony rampersad on unsplash

When you're moving, there's lots to pay attention to -- what's going through your head, the moves you're doing, the sensations you feel -- which makes noticing your breathing just one of a long list of things you can that we can be aware of while moving. This week, I invite you to try choosing the breath.

 

What’s in this episode of moved to heal?

I invite you to observe your breathing while moving. You can move through "cat/cow" or in any way you choose.

You can do this Moved to Heal practice while seated or on hands and knees (for cat/cow) or from any starting place you choose.

"Cat/cow" is a movement of the spine or trunk. Cat rounds the spine, cow arches/backbends the spine.

 

Integration suggestion

After listening to the episode, perhaps take a moment to check in: did you notice something that you want to remember or follow up on? If yes, maybe jot it down in a notebook or record a voice memo to help you remember.

 

You can give it a try when you're ready

Listen to "observing breathing while moving" on Spreaker.

Be moving, be true, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit dave hoefler on unsplash

If you've been with me for a while, you've probably heard me go on and on about the magic of our breathing. I'm fascinated by how it works anatomically, and how it transforms our moment to moment experience in feeling. When it comes to meditation, breathing is a tremendous aid and, sometimes, a bit overpowering...
 

What’s in this episode?

We're returning to the practice of Hum Sa kriya this week, and in the How To, I talk about what happens when your breathing becomes the primary focus -- instead of the kriya (the "focusing mind action"). Fair warning, for some of you, hearing about this possibility may create it where it was not an issue before! So feel free to skip if you're not particularly curious.

 

After practicing

If you are curious, you might check in after your practice: how did breathing participate? What held your focus most easily: the kriya or breathing? Neither is right or wrong (despite my framing breathing as getting in the way), just different practices. Which do you prefer?

Give it a try when you're ready

Listen to "Ep 496 - Breathing Choice + Hum Sa Kriya Meditation" on Spreaker.

 
Be moving, be true,
esther
 
 

photo credit daniil silantev on unsplash

What’s in this episode of moved to heal?

Observing breathing is simple in concept and can be a whole variety of things in practice, including simple, difficult, complicated, emotional, and more.

In this episode, I invite you to observe your breathing in any way you choose, and offer 3 different options you can try. For each, I describe the option and then give you about a minute of quiet in which to practice. You can do or not do any of the practices, and in whatever manner or degree you choose.

 

The 3 breath observation options I offer
  • to notice the length of your inhale and exhale
  • to notice the movement of your breathing
  • to notice the sound of your breathing

You can do this Moved to Heal practice while reclining, seated, standing, or moving.

 

Integration suggestion

After listening to the episode, perhaps take a moment to check in: did you notice something that you want to remember or follow up on? If yes, maybe jot it down in a notebook or record a voice memo to help you remember.

 

You can give it a try when you're ready

Listen to "observing breathing" on Spreaker.

Be moving, be true, be you
esther
 
 

photo credit aleksander solberg on unsplash

Making the sounds of A-U-M kriya can be deeply soothing to your nervous system --all the more so when you think about the role your breathing plays.
 

What’s in this episode?

AUM kriya meditation! In this version, I invite you to imagine your "breath" in different locations in your torso -- lower, middle, and upper thirds. This is so we can imagine the sounds "Ahh" "Ooo" and "Mmm" as originating both from the breath and from these areas of the torso. It's maybe not as weird as it sounds in writing 😉

 

How can you use this practice?

If making sound is not something you think about, but just do, this practice may help you bring some intention into your chanting. And I find the meditation practice very grounding - good for when you feel less than steady in your body or mind.
 

Give it a try when you're ready

 
Listen to "Ep 483 - Breathing Sound and AUM Meditation".
 
Be moving, be true,
esther
 
 

photo credit artur luckza on unsplash

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