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26 August 2012

Big self, breathing space---a breathing practice might help

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

In her latest blog entry, Jennifer talks about breathing space as a critical element in our being able to bring our biggest selves to work.  I agree.  Building more time into our days for reflection and quiet, resisting the temptation to fill up every moment, is both attractive and elusive for many of us.  As she says (and as so many of us know), we focus on the knowing, but where we fall short is the being and, I’ll assert, also the doing.  Sounds odd, in a way, to say that leaders tend to fall short on the “doing,” since, after all, isn’t it the “doing” that leaves us so little time to breathe and “be”?  Let’s take a look at how breath can help with the “being” and save how it can help with the “doing” for a later blog.

As a starting point, I offer a reminder of why it’s important that leaders pay attention to their bodies.  I love this quote from Jack Kornfield’s book A Path With Heart:

A mistaken disregard for the body is illustrated in a story of Mullah Nasrudin, a wise and holy fool.  Nasrudin had bought a donkey, but it was costing him a lot to keep it fed, so he hatched a plan.  As the weeks went on, he gradually fed the donkey less and less.  Finally, he was only feeding him one small cupful of grain throughout the day.  The plan seemed to be succeeding, and Nasrudin was saving a lot of money.  Then, unfortunately, the donkey died.  Nasrudin went to see his friends, in the tea shop and told them about his experiment.  “It’s such a shame.  If that donkey had been a round a bit longer, maybe I could have gotten him used to eating nothing!”

Both Nasrudin’s idea that he could deprive a living thing of food and expect it to live, and his blindness to the fact that it was lack of food that killed the donkey, seem absurd and yet familiar in the figurative sense.  How can we possibly create breathing space for ourselves if we don’t breathe? If we don’t attend to the vessel on which our “knowing” sits?  For that matter, why do we believe our “knowing” resides in only part of ourselves?  Can we really starve the body of what it needs—breath, in this case—and expect ourselves to have breathing room?  Now that seems absurd!

Breathing as a practice hardly seems like something earthshattering or new.  Yogis and meditation practitioners have believed for years that breath is life-giving. In the East, the life force created by breath is called prana or chi. A lack of this energy can cause low motivation and  productivity, and even depression or other illness.  A well-developed “chi,” on the other hand, can make us happier, more productive, and generally healthier. Until recently, these ideas were a not mainstream and could not be proven.  And now, of course, neuroscience upholds scientifically what we knew intuitively.  With technology, we can now see before our very eyes how the breath can influence heart rate.  In fact, pranayamic (or yogic) breathing has been shown to help with everything from immune function to psychological disorders.  So why don’t we create more breathing room by—well—paying more attention to our breathing?

If you’re still with me, I’d like to offer a little breathing practice.  If you already have a committed breathing practice of some sort, and if it’s working, by all means, continue.  This offer is for those of you who have not yet figured out a way to work breathing into your life but who believe at least a little bit that breathing can help, and possibly lead to more breathing space!

Stand with your feet about hips’ width apart (you can do this sitting down as well, but I like practicing standing up because it does a better job opening the airways) with all four corners of your feet pressed firmly but gently into the ground.  Close your eyes.  Now bring your attention to the top of your head and imagine that a string is gently pulling the crown of your head up toward the sky.  Resist the temptation to force the stretch, but instead see if you can imagine all of the air passages in your body opening to let through 50% more air than you normally feel.  Roll your shoulders back gently to open your chest.  Open the back of your throat, be sure your teeth are not touching, even though your lips may be touching.  Now bring your attention down the place about 3-5 inches below your belly button.  Place your hand there gently and begin to breathe into your belly.  Feel your hand rise as the air comes in and fall as you release it.  Count to 3 as you breathe in, feeling the air moving from your belly up through the center of your ribs, up your sternum, and then spill gently over the top before you count to three as you breathe all the way out.  This breathing should be intentional but relatively effortless, leaving you filled with energy, not tired, out of breath, or drained.  Repeat this for at least 10 in and 10 out breaths.  With each breath, see if you can move your attention just a bit further down from your head to your heart center so that at the end of several breaths, you may even feel something like a warmth in your chest.  Just notice how that feels.  When you are ready, at the end of a full out breath, open your eyes, and before you move back to your to do list, take 30 seconds to notice how you feel.  Breathe that feeling one last time into your muscles, focusing on the place where you felt it most (if you did).

Seem like too much breathing space?  No time for this?  Afraid it’ll slow you down?  Ok, really?  It takes maybe 3 minutes.  I suggest you do this very early in the day before the stresses of daily life overtake you. And here’s the kicker.  If you have spent any time thinking and/or reading about how adults learn cognitively, you know that one of the key elements is repetition over time.  Our bodies learn in the same way.  So if you want breathing to become part of your life, you’ll have to practice during the course of your day—start by noticing when you most need it, like when you notice yourself being anxious or scared or stressed.  Then begin to do it when you don’t particularly need to, but connected to a “signal” you get many times throughout the day, such as when you receive or send a text or email.  Just one or two breaths, so that you get the practice into your muscles, your tissues.  Until breathing becomes a habit.  See if this helps with the breathing space!

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