We all know, fundamentally, that breathing is the absolutely essential basis for all life. I think, however, we tend to forget that basic fact, because it is so very involuntary. In and out it goes, with no conscious or thoughtful effort --- whooshing into our lungs and swirling through our bloodstream, providing our bodies the very essence of life, and then rushing back out, offering sustaining gases to the vegetation around us.
The only time I am forced to think about this continuously unconscious act is when it becomes difficult –-- when I am sick or when my allergies flare up, and especially when both happen at the same time.
I was a sickly kid with constant earaches, sore throats, coughing jags, nose bleeds, etc. My parents brought my sister and me to an allergist in Watertown (two hours away from our home) when I was 5 and she was 2. They discovered that we had fairly severe allergies to dust, molds, cats, as well as all the other usual suspects. We both began a regimen of allergy shots with regular visits back to the allergist for check-ups.
I particularly remember the lung volume test, which I dreaded. It was a vertical clear plastic tube with a little ball in the bottom and measurement marks on the side. I had to blow into a mouthpiece at the bottom and make the little plastic ball move up to the top of the tube. It was always very difficult and the ball never rose very far. I always felt so defeated after this part of the visit, because I was a kid who was pretty competitive and liked to achieve the highest score. Hence, I always avoided doing the breathing exercises at home. It was very hard, and I didn't want to remind myself on a daily basis how much I sucked at it.
If only I understood then, what I know now. If I had worked at breathing, making it a conscious practice, I would have stronger, healthier lungs today and would not suffer with the maladies that inflict them every time my system gets overwhelmed with allergens or other irritants.
As you may have surmised, I am currently in the midst of one of these bouts and breathing has become a very conscious effort these last few days. I sit over a bowl of steaming cider vinegar and eucalyptus oil, inhaling deeply and holding it in to force the vapor and antimicrobial properties into the recesses of my bronchial tubes and lungs --- all the while pondering this essential reflex.
So why, with this knowledge taken from my early childhood (indeed, well into my mid-adulthood), am I still only conscious of the act of breathing when it isn't natural and easy?
Pranayama is the Sanskrit word in the Indian Yogistic culture that express the essence of intentional breath. It is the basis for any yogic practice, however, for the most part it is missing from my daily yoga regimen. I do the physical exercises with little regard for my breath. I should be practicing Pranayama every day, because if/when I do something with intention, it becomes important.
Taking those deep mindful breaths allows us to focus on the crucial elements in our lives. It offers an alternative view of all of the possibilities and choices available to us in any given moment, and especially during a crisis.
Breathe with me –- quiet, gradual in … hold it … and slow, easy out. Feel the power and energy invading your cells. Notice your body and mind coming to attention, all the while loosening and relaxing. Now do it again, and again ...