Entry #3

Learning to Breathe

For most of us, breathing is something we do without thinking. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we die. Everyday we take thousands of breaths. But most of us don’t even notice our breath.  It’s one of those things that the autonomic nervous system takes care of, like digestion.  If we stop breathing, we stop living, so our body automatically regulates our breath for us.   But unlike digestion, we can consciously decide to change the pace and depth of our breath, and can actually impact our nervous system. (For the life of me, no matter how hard I try to concentrate, I wouldn’t be able to change the speed or way in which I digest food.)


The autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic (sometimes called fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (sometimes referred to as the relaxation response). The sympathetic nervous system helps us to survive by recognizing when we are in danger or stress by increasing our heart rate, producing adrenaline to give us a boost of energy, shutting down our digestion and reproductive organs and sending extra blood to our extremities and large muscle groups enabling us to flee.  Cortisol, sometimes referred to as the stress hormone, is released and our ability to balance normal function is interrupted.  When we were hunters, this came in handy, when an animal larger than us was threatening our lives. Even though we aren’t hunting or being threatened in this same way in modern day life, this part of the limbic brain still elicits these reactions when we are under stress, creating this extreme fight or flight reaction. Something as simple as a traffic ticket, phone call or bad news can trigger our sympathetic nervous system and send it into over drive.  Going through infertility can cause chronic stress levels that start to take a toll on our hormonal balance, immune system and ability to regulate our nervous systems to the point of anxiety and depression equivalent to those who have been diagnosed with cancer or aids.


What can we do to combat this stress? Breathe

Yogis are aware that by being able to control our breath, we can actually shift out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system where our heart rate slows, our brain waves calm, our hormones begin to regulate them selves and we start to feel at peace. Dopamine is released in the brain, and we can boost our immune system and radically improve our health and overall wellbeing. We move out of the “reactive” and into the “responsive.”  Returning our ability to have equanimity, patience and perspective. (Remember the Yo-Yo from last Blog?)  When we are in the parasympathetic nervous system, the body is getting the message that we are safe, and the reproductive system comes “back online.”


Those of us, who practice and teach Yoga, know that the breath is the most important part of the practice.  Without the breath Yoga would just be a seiries of stretches and wouldn’t have the deep healing capacity that it does.


In Yogic philosophy, life force or Prana rides on the breath.  Prana can be taken in different forms, breath, food, light, it is life-giving energy and feeds every cell in our bodies with sustenance.  Pranayama is the practice of breathing in specific ways to enhance and cultivate this life force in our bodies.  It opens the body from the inside out, increasing oxygen to the blood, brain and organs, detoxifying via the lungs and brings us present through observation of the breath in the body. By observing our breath in this moment, it is hard to spin into future worry or past regret, we must notice what “is” right now.  Learning to be with “what is” is the first step in learning to receive. (Remember the Divine Feminine Principle?)


So, one of the most basic breathing techniques in Yoga is called Ujjayi Breath, translated as “Breath of Victory” or “Conqueror’s Breath. “  Not a bad thing to have in your back pocket when going through reproductive difficulties.  I teach this breath at the beginning of my Strong Yoga4FertilityÔ DVD and have found that it is the best tool women can use when facing stress in their every day lives to take back their power on their path to fertility.   I will teach you how to “Ujjayi breathe” in the next blog.  In the meantime, notice that you are breathing and how you breathe.  Becoming aware is the first step in transformation.


In the last Blog we talked about the ability to impact our nervous system with our breath.  How to move out of “fight or flight” and into “the relaxation response.” By learning to do this we get to have the control button on our nervous system and not be a victim of our reactions.  Sometimes going through reproductive difficulties is like getting on a roller coaster with no speed control, the ride can be frightening and leave you weak in the knees and sick to your stomach.  Learning how to breathe while on the ride can actually be the difference in feeling out of control or daringly adventurous.  Remember we are learning that we can’t always control what happens, but we can manage our reaction to what happens, there by, arresting the stress response from taking a chronic toll on our reproductive hormones and function.


This is the practical step by step how to learn Yogic Ujjayi Breath (Breath of Victory) at home.

Sit in a comfortable position with your spine long.  Make sure your pelvic floor is level (if you are sitting in a chair, uncross your legs) by sitting evenly on both sitting bones.

Hold your right hand, palm facing you, about 6” in front of our face.

Purse your lips like you are going to blow out a candle and exhale, blowing on the palm of your hand.  Notice the temperature of your breath.


Now, take another breath, and this time open your mouth and make the aspirated sound “HA” in your throat as if you were breathing on a pair of glasses to clean them. Blow into your palm again.  Notice the temperature this time.  (It should feel warmer)


By making the “HA” sound in your throat, you are constricting the epiglottis at the back of your throat and are able to control the inflow and outflow of the breath by making it longer, warmer and audible so you can hear and feel your breath in your throat.


Now, breathe in through your nose, then, dropping your jaw and making the aspirated “HA” sound in your throat as you exhale.  Inhale again through your nose and this time halfway through your exhale, while m aking the “HA” sound in your throat, close your mouth and hear the “Ujjayi sound” in the back of your throat.  Keep making the aspirated “HA” sound in the back of your throat as you inhale through your nose again.  (The inhale is slightly harder to find, simply slow the inhale down at the bottom of the exhale and imagine you are inhaling through your throat, not your nose)  When done properly this sounds a bit like Darth Vader or the Ocean.


Once you have the sound consistent and can hear it on both the inhale and exhale, close your eyes and start to slow your breath down to even counts on the inhale and exhale.  (eg. Inhale count of 4, exhale count of 4, inhale count of 8, exhale count of 8.) Watch the breath enter your body and fill out your lungs and lift your heart, bringing more space into the inside of the body. As you exhale, keep this space you created and simply soften around it, letting go of any tension you may unconsciously be holding in your neck, shoulders and belly.)  Breathe several rounds watching and listening to the breath in this manner with your eyes closed.  When you feel you have the hang of it and everything has slowed down, from your breath, to your heart rate, to your thoughts, stop controlling the breath and simply breathe normally and notice the impact the breath had on you.


Taking time every day to create “breathing room”, even if it is for just 20 sec. can reset our nervous system and bring us present, connected to our body and breath, and aware of where we chronically hold tension.  This practice alone can make the infertility journey go from an out of control roller coaster ride to an unexpected adventure in the span of a few breaths.  I tell my new students to breathe for 5 min “on the hour every hour” for a week just to get them in the habit of breathing with awareness.  If you are the type of person that makes this another thing to “fail” at and it adds stress to your life, simply try doing “Breath of Victory” whenever you start to notice that you are feeling stressed and take a little “breathing room” for yourself instead.  Your nervous system will thank you.  As an added benefit, when you do become a parent, learning to count to ten and breathe like this will make you a more conscious and less reactive parent as well.  Might as well start practicing now!