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Thursday, December 20 2012

Taking a breath is the first thing you do when you are born, and it is the last thing you do before you die.  We need food and water to survive, but we need to breathe more than anything else.  The body can survive days without water and weeks without food, but only a few minutes without the breath.

We tend to forget about the breath, especially as we mature and get caught up in everyday living and routines.  In my yoga classes, I teach that the breath is the most important part of the yoga.

The great spiritual leader Paramahansa Yogananda taught that through Kriya Yoga Meditation (based on breathing techniques), a person’s soul can transcend a million years in one lifetime.  That is some pretty powerful breathing!

When was the last time you enjoyed taking a deep, rejuvenating breath—letting your lungs expand completely, all the way down to the lowest lobes?

The following five breathing techniques offer simple ways for you to connect with your breath.  Returning to your breath is a basic thing, something that grounds you, connects you with your inner-self and with the universe.

The brain is smart, it learns, remembers, and is influenced by a multitude of internal and external forces.  The brain is the control center of your body and so long as you are getting enough oxygen for normal body functions, the brain will not ask you to breathe deeper, using the full capacity of your lungs.  The following breathing techniques require you to put the brain in the background, slowing or silencing the chatter of the mind, so that you focus only on the breath. Listening to your breath is the basis of most meditation practices.

Taking a few minutes each day to connect with your breath will create positive changes in your life, making you healthier, giving you a richer perspective of your world and the universe.

Technique 1 – Deep-Breathing 7’s

a)        Sit up straight in a chair—no slouching or unnatural curving in your spine.

b)        Close your eyes and rest your hands on your thighs or knees.

c)         Relax your shoulders and hips, visualize any tension in your body draining down your body out through the bottoms of your feet into the floor or ground.

d)        Relax your jaw, but keep your lips closed, exhale completely though your nose.

e)        Inhale through your nose to your own personal count of 7, breathing from the bottom of the lungs up.  Put your hand right below your sternum.  You should be able to feel your ribs expanding as your breathe in.  Relax the back of the throat and let it open as you breath in.

f)         Exhale slowly through your nose to your own personal count of 7.

g)        Focus on the sound and rhythm of your breath with your eyes closed.  Try not to let your mind wander; keep retuning to the breath.  Repeat at your own pace for 7 minutes.

h)        I recommend setting a kitchen timer.  When the time is up, slowly open your eyes, smile, and thank yourself for taking the time to do this breathing technique.

Technique 2 – Deep-Breathing 7’s with Pauses

 This technique is performed exactly as above, except that you pause for 7 counts between each inhale and exhale.  If this is a challenge at first, just pause for a count of 2 or 3 and build up as you relax and gain more confidence experiencing a ‘breathless’ state.

This technique helps your brain move from the beta state (fully awake and alert) into the alpha state (relaxed, more right brain activity) that is a key requirement to reach meditative states.

Technique 3 – Alternate Nostril Breathing

a)        Get comfortable in a chair, sitting up straight or sit on the floor Indian style, or in lotus position.

b)        Close your eyes, breathing in and out through your nose, focusing on the breath.  Take normal, relaxing breaths.

c)         Use your right thumb to close off your right nostril as you breathe in through your left nostril.

d)        When you have breathed in a full, deep breath, immediately release your right nostril and close off your left nostril with your right index finger and exhale completely through the right nostril.

e)        Once you have exhaled completely through the right nostril, inhale deeply through the right nostril, with the left nostril still shut using your right index finger.

f)         Once you have inhaled completely use your right thumb to shut off the right nostril, release the right index finger from the left nostril and exhale completely through the left nostril.

g)        Inhale through the left nostril and repeat the cycles.

The alternate sequence can sometimes at first be confusing.  Relax and start with three minutes.  Before long you’ll be able to do five to ten minutes easily.

Technique 4 – Favorite Place in Nature Breathing

Almost everyone has a special place outside, a place that warms your heart, makes you smile when you think about it, a place where you feel safe, secure, and special, and a place where you long to go, time and again.  I use this technique a lot in my yoga classes.
We usually do it in corpse pose (savasana).

a)        Get comfortable in a chair, sitting up straight or sit on the floor Indian style, or in lotus position.

b)        Close your eyes, breathing in and out through your nose, focusing on the       breath.  Take normal, relaxing breaths.

c)         As you breathe normally, let your mind visualize your favorite place:  focus on the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feeling of the place you know and love so well.

d)        As your mind carries you to your favorite place, relax your body and begin to slow and lengthen your inhales and exhales.  Continue to breath in and out through the nose with the lips shut, the jaw relaxed.

e)        After three to five minutes of deep breathing focusing on your favorite place, allow your mind to focus more on the breath and less on the favorite place.

f)         Continue in this manner for ten to twenty minutes.

g)        You will probably be in a fairly deep meditative state by the end of this exercise.  To come out of it, begin to wiggle your toes and fingers as you  slowly open your eyes.  Smile, knowing you can be instantly transported to your favorite place through the mind and the breath.

Technique 5 – White Light Breathing

a)        Get comfortable in a chair, sitting up straight or sit on the floor Indian style, or in lotus position.

b)        Close your eyes, breathing in and out through your nose, focusing on the breath.  Take normal, relaxing breaths.

c)         Imagine that your spine is a hollow tube and that as you breath in, your breath starts at the base of your spine, climbs up the hollow tube, through your throat and head and out the crown of your head.  As you breath out, the breath travels from the crown of the head, down to the base of the spine.

d)        Now imagine that your breath is a pulsing, bright white light originating at the base of your spine.  As you breath in, the ball of white light rises up through the hollow tube of your spine and through the crown of your head.

e)        This white energy emerging from your head mixes with all the energy in the universe gaining strength, power, and intensity.  As you exhale, fresh, new white energy is drawn into the crown of your head, flowing back down through your hollow spine and into every cell of your body with healing, refreshing energy.

f)         Continue focusing on this image as you breath in and out through your nose. The white ball of energy increases in size with each inhalation and exhalation until it expands beyond your body, filling up the room, filling up the building, filling up your town, your state, your country, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, until it fills the entire universe and you become one with the energy of the universe.

g)        You will be in a deep meditative state by the end of this exercise.  To come out of it, begin to wiggle your toes and fingers as you slowly open your eyes.

Remember, the breath is the basis of our lives.  Without it, we do not live.  Be kind to yourself, honor yourself, and take a few minutes every day to focus on your breath.  After all, without the breath, nothing else really matters. 

Posted by: by Jody Zimmerman, Registered Yoga Teacher, RYT® AT 09:20 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, December 19 2012

I attended Clemson University during the late 1970s and earned extra money exercising hunter-jumper horses on a farm in nearby Anderson.  One autumn day as I galloped through the fields, two sleek, muscular, grey dogs suddenly appeared, ran alongside my horse for a bit, then vanished into the woods.  Enthralled by their elegance and power, I vowed to someday own one of those dogs with the striking faces and unusual name—Weimaraner.

Ten years later I was settled in Louisville, KY disentangling myself from a failing relationship and managing a rapidly growing environmental consulting company.  A Weimaraner puppy was just what I needed in my life, I thought.

One Saturday morning in June of 1990, my friend Glenn and I journeyed to Paducah, KY where a breeder from Illinois presented five adorable grey puppies, their eyes vivid blue.  One small female—the pups were just five weeks old—paid particular attention to me.  And so it was, I chose her and gave her a good Germanic name—Hedda.

I never thought to interview Weimaraner owners or to visit the library to glean specifics of the breed.  It didn’t really matter; destiny prevailed.

Weimaraners are companion dogs—in other words, they are genetically predisposed to find a way into your bed.

That first night, I put Hedda in a crate in my den, snuggling her against a large, stuffed teddy bear on a thick, fleece pad.  She curled up, falling fast asleep.  Such a sweet, well-behaved puppy, I mused, crawling into bed.  As I drifted off to sleep, Hedda started a whimper that escalated into crying, then into a high-pitched, yapping scream.  Patience, I thought.  Don’t run to her; you’ll spoil her.  Wait it out; she’ll calm down in a few minutes.

Thirty minutes later, my pillow pressed over my ears, I caved in, went to the den, picked her up, brought her to my bed, placed her on my chest, stroked her back, and she quickly fell asleep.  Oh well, so much for the crate at night.  At least this way I would housebreak her because I will know exactly when she needs to pee or poop—probably only twice a night.

I misjudged.  Hedda woke up every two hours, like clockwork, from ten o’clock until six in the morning for the next six weeks.  Dutifully, I carried her outside each time her telltale whine awakened me.  During the day, tired and irritable, my co-workers with infants and I would exchange supportive, knowing glances with our bloodshot eyes.

But it was all worth it:  Hedda was completely housebroken and had attained permanent stature in my bed.

Weimaraners are food-motivated—a genteel description of pigs disguised as aristocratic canines. 

I constantly removed things from her mouth.  One night I found a blue plastic razor handle on the bathroom floor—she’d swallowed the razor part.  I rushed her to an emergency animal clinic.  The attending veterinarian, a small Asian man I could barely understand, took an x-ray of her stomach, clipped the x-ray to a light box in the exam room, pointed to several white blobs and said, “Here is stomach; these no good.”

Certain he’d want to cut her open, I panicked, but he took a small white pill, pulled out her lower right eyelid and inserted the pill.

“Now go here,” he said, directing us to a back room.  “Put her there,” he said pointing to a metal grate on top of a large stainless steel utility sink.

“We wait,” he said.

Hedda emitted a shallow cough that morphed into heaves, then full-scale vomiting.  Out came her two cups of kibble, three twist ties, four pieces of cypress mulch, several small rocks, two pieces of aluminum foil, a dime, two pennies, and the razor.  The veterinarian grimaced, demanding, “Damn!  Why you let her eat all that shit for?”  I was speechless.

Hedda grew into the consummate kitchen counter predator.   Any food left unattended, for even a millisecond, was fair game.  She indiscriminately scarfed down anything from raw strip steaks to sliced cantaloupe.  She advanced to opening kitchen cabinets with her nose, consuming entire loaves of bread, five-pound bags of sugar, boxes of cereal, and plastic jars of peanut butter.  I installed child locks on the cabinets.  Once, while staying with my friend Glenn while I traveled for business, she managed to jump high enough to grab a box of Godiva chocolates from a top closet shelf and consumed every piece, wrappers included.

She continually honed her skills in this area throughout her long life, proudly passing them down to Max, a male Weimaraner pup who joined our family when Hedda was six years old.  She took him under her wing, and they bonded for life.

Weimaraners require constant engagement, as in doing something extremely physical, like hunting birds all day.  Otherwise, they may develop small behavioral problems.  

Glenn and I worked during the day, so when we moved in together to a different house, Hedda got her own bedroom—no longer would she endure hours in a crate.

One Friday after work, I ran upstairs to get Hedda.  I opened her bedroom door and gazed upon devastation.  She had shredded the queen size mattress and box springs, chewed off both windowsills and several mullions, and had destroyed the wooden mission-style bed—a beaver could not have more completely decimated the four bedposts.  How could one dog do so much damage in four hours?  I had walked her at lunch that day.

Separation anxiety was a new term to us.  Fortunately, we befriended our next-door neighbor, Karen, a dog lover.  Her husband was the opposite, and he forbade canines in his house, well, at least while he was home.  Each morning after he left for work, Karen came over, got Hedda, and they spent much of the day together.  I’m not certain what they did during the day, but often I’d arrive home to find Hedda’s toenails painted bright red or pink.  Hedda’s separation anxiety ceased.

I was a runner and Hedda was my running companion.  She loved long marathon-training runs, some twenty miles or more.  In the mid 1990s most road race organizers in Louisville permitted dogs.  We competed in several races together.  I was careful to keep her on a short lead—her competitive nature compelled her to snap at any runners passing us.

Weimaraners mature late—they exhibit puppy behavior until age five, but it’s worth the wait.

Hedda’s boundless energy was matched by her intense curiosity.  With eyes wide open, she would stick her head completely underwater in Beargrass Creek searching for sticks, cans, or plastic food wrappers.  She loved to ride shotgun in cars, sitting up tall, her eyes scanning the surroundings, her nose quivering.  Even with her daily visits with Karen and all the miles of running, she demanded a great deal of our attention and time until she turned five years old.

At that point, a general calmness descended upon her, and though she became stronger and smarter than ever, she attained a state of canine nirvana.  Friends sought out her regal presence, yearning to touch her.

Hedda became the matriarch of our family, welcoming other dogs and cats into our fold over the years, always loving, proud, and content.  And when we finally had to let her go on a warm April day, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, she passed peacefully on her favorite rattan chair on the back porch, surrounded by many friends.

Hedda taught me so much, and I feel so blessed to have had such a wonderful companion on my journey to middle age.

Posted by: By Jody AT 09:34 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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