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Posted: July 15, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

The Joy of Breathing

Breath is a delicious drink -- mentally intoxicating, body-soothing, spirit-lifting -- once we know how to sip it.

In fact, the invisible task of breathing is one of life’s finer pleasures, but we actually pay it no mind. We typically bring to the task no heart, no spirit. And in letting breath go its own way, we forfeit an elegant indulgence.

Martial artist and Zen Yoga founder Aaron Hoopes has indulged daily in the delights of mindful breath for more than 20 years. “Breathing is the connection between the mind and the body. When the mind concentrates on the breath, it focuses attention on the present moment,” he says. “Breathing is the first step on that path to discovering your spiritual nature. As you get the body to breathe correctly, the mind settles down, and that creates fertile ground to develop whatever spiritual nature exists within you.”

Hoopes is the author of Breathe Smart: The Secret to Happiness, Health and Long Life (Zen Yoga Press, 2003) and Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Mind, Body and Spirit (Turtle Press, 2002). He has studied the martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and alternative medicine in Japan and Australia. He makes breathing practices accessible to students of all ages, from children to seniors. He suggests four practices to calm the body and connect with spirit:

Abdominal Breathing

Press the abdominals out and down on inhale. This muscular action creates a vacuum that pulls the lungs down, allowing them to expand beyond the typical breath that uses only the top third of the lungs. As you exhale, pull the abs up and in to empty the lungs from bottom up. Pushing breath out of the bottom of the lungs clears the settled, stale air that results from our usual subsistence breathing. This deep, slow breath refreshes the entire body.

Nasal Breathing

As you breathe, keep the mouth closed with the tongue resting lightly against the upper palate. This connection creates a circuit of energy within you. The natural defense mechanisms of the nose, such as nasal hairs and mucous membranes, prevent impurities and cold air from shocking the lungs. Some styles of martial arts and yoga suggest exhaling through the mouth, but that breaks the energetic circuit created by the connection between tongue and upper palate, Hoopes says. Nasal breathing also reduces the tendency to exhale excess carbon dioxide, creating an imbalance in the body. (Some carbon dioxide is needed to balance the body’s oxygen.)

Reverse Abdominal Breathing

Martial artists -- and parents blowing up balloons for birthday parties -- use reverse abdominal breathing to generate power. As you inhale, pull your abs in and up to fill the upper chest. As you exhale, push down and out with the abs. This energetic breath is the dynamic counterpart to the more relaxing abdominal breath.

Practice these breathing techniques anytime you’re wasting time, Hoopes says. When you’re stuck in line at the grocery store or driving your car, when you’re bored, or in a moment when nothing else is going on, practice breathing. Abdominal breathing should be done daily; reverse abdominal breathing, less often. “You’ll get into a cycle: Do a few deep breaths, and you notice your body feels better. Then you start to remind yourself that you feel better when you practice deep breathing. And then you make it part of everyday life.”

The Complete Cycle

A good breathing practice for first morning light or the final, still moments of the day is the complete cycle of breath. This four-part breath consists of inhalation, retention, exhalation, and suspension. Inhale, then pause while gently holding the breath in. Exhale, then pause while holding the breath out. This practice is applied to basic abdominal breathing. “When you pause with the breath in, it creates a moment of stillness where the whole body is focused on processing oxygen,” Hoopes says. “Then when you suspend breathing for a moment, it allows the body to use all the oxygen remaining in your lungs.” When you are starved for oxygen for a moment, the next breath is all the more delicious. Practice three rounds of the complete cycle of breath, then return to your normal breathing pattern.

With practice, a good breath is as sensual as a lover’s caress, as comforting as a best friend’s hug, as sweet as a child’s goodnight kiss. One of Hoope’s best breaths was, literally, a mountaintop experience. Having spent the day climbing in the Pinnacle Mountains in Australia, he perched atop a solitary rock under a sun-filled sky and began to breathe. A flood of clouds washed up the valley and crested over the peak of mountains. Surrounded in these clouds, Aaron Hoopes breathed the earth’s own breath.

_____

Jennifer Derryberry is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. She is the former editor of Science & Spirit magazine.


This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see www.SpiritualityHealth.com/subs. Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at www.caregivershome.com. Contact staff directly via email at ASKspirituality@spiritualityhealth.com.

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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