Our bodies are made up of a series of systems that basically make us go. Some of these systems work without without us paying any attention like our circulation or digestion. While there are many habits that can influence the efficiency and ease of these inner workings we do not need to consciously remind our hearts to beat, or our stomachs to break down food- it happens automatically. When it comes to moving our bones, not so involuntary -an average healthy body and brain actually wait for our signal.
There is only one system in the body that we can both intentionally direct, or forget about entirely and it either way it will continue on. It's the breath. Every day we take approximately 20,000 breaths whether we notice or not.
When left up to its own devices the breath will mostly take its cues from the mind. When the mind races, the breath quickens. When the mind is steady, often the breath is too. The pace, the depth, and the rhythm of our breathing sends a message to our nervous system communicating basically either danger or peace. The fast, shallow breath ( usually accompanied by a busy, excited,or agitated mind) sends a signal that we need to get ready to run or to fight. So the body prepares- whether the threat is real like being chased, or imagined like worrying that one day you may be chased - the body reacts the same. Muscles tighten, digestion slows down, the heart pumps faster, and all secondary workings of the body that are not required for immediate survival come to a snail's pace or a halt.
It's all too common that in today's face paced mentality, where worth is often measured by productivity, many are spending most of their time living in this “survival mode”. The price is anxiety, insomnia, adrenal fatigue, lowered immunity, all the way down the road to life threatening disease.
So what happens when the breath is slow and steady? Deep and rhythmic? You've got it- basically the opposite. The signal is sent that all is well. Normal activities can resume, blood pressure can decrease, muscles can unclench, and the body can gradually return to its natural state of balance. This is the state of being where we can rest and digest, truly relax and slowly heal. This is where can find peace.
Here is the good news- we don't have to leave the breath to manage on its own. We can influence the breath and its qualities just by giving it our attention .When we practice watching the breath almost like magic it naturally slows, steadies and deepens. And just as the mind impacts the breath- the breath affects the mind. By consciously inviting a calming, peaceful breath- the mind becomes more at ease. Thoughts slow down, perspectives shift and broaden, and worries slowly but surely disperse.
The breath is the bridge between the mind and the body-
and lucky for us it's a two way road.
So how will you experience those 20,000 breaths today? How many will you gift with your attention, and how many will be left alone? When we come to the mat we are basically committing to watching at least a few thousand- otherwise it not yoga but just exercise. The more we practice paying attention in Yoga- the better we become at paying attention in all the others postures of our life. It’s this deep attentiveness that allows us to discover the path that leads us home.
Feel like coming to the mat? Here is a gentle Hatha Yoga class on the breath