My journey into breathing began here, at the Richmond, CA Public Library (1971). While in ninth grade in Richmond I began experiencing burning pain in my back between my shoulder blades. Nothing I did seemed to work.
I love libraries because you can find just about anything there. I rode my bike to the library after school.
I headed over to the card catalog. Back in those days, there were three ways to search the catalog; by title, author and by subject. There were three complete physical card catalogs, one for each type of search.
I began my search in the subject catalog under “B” for backache. I found an entry for Yoga for Backache. I located this little paperback in the stacks. It was illustrated with black and white pictures of three different models, a young man, a woman and an older Indian swami in a loincloth with a big, graying beard. This became my introduction to hatha yoga, asanas and breathing.
I took the book home and started practicing yoga by fooling the written instructions and the black & white photos. Yoga wasn’t nearly as common then as it is now. No yoga mats, blocks, videos or DVDs. Yoga pants were just loose jeans, gym shorts or sweats. That and my little black & white paperback.
I worked my way through standing exercises, sitting exercises and prone exercises. Then I encountered the section on breathing. I was skeptical. How can breathing help my backache? But, what the heck, the old yogi in the pictures seemed to know what he was talking about. So I gave breathing a try.
There were a variety of different ways to practice breathing. The main technique is deep belly breathing. Before I started on these exercises I expanded my chest and sucked in my belly while inhaling, then pushed my belly out and compressed my ribcage when exhaling. This was the opposite of the belly breathing taught in the book.
In yogic breathing you relax the diaphragm while inhaling. This expands you belly, not your ribs. To exhale you push the air out with your diaphragm, making the belly sink in. There were so many variations, like alternate nostril breathing, closing one nostril while inhaling, and closing the other when exhaling. I recall this as a particular challenge with my severe allergies and sinusitis.
One exercise I particularly enjoyed was the “Breath of Fire”. Just the name was exciting. The Breath of Fire involves taking fifty rapid breaths in as short a time as possible. (Make sure you are sitting down!) the effort is spent on the exhale, forcing your breath out with a quick contraction of your diaphragm, then relaxing the diaphragm to draw the breath in just as quickly. Each cycle takes only a second or so.
After fifty breaths like this, you can feel a buzzing in your bloodstream from the excess oxygen. Then you empty your lungs one final time and just stop breathing. I found I could hold my breath effortlessly for a minute or more, feeling the buzzing subside. I also used to practice the breath of fire before swimming underwater in my cousin’s pool. I challenged myself to see how long I could stay under. As a kid, this was a really cool discovery.
I was surprised to find a similar scene in this cool movie from 1993 of a teenager meditating at the bottom of a swimming pool. I really enjoyed this movie, Ordinary Magic, that I also found in my local library’s VHS collection. This weird kid uses his knowledge of yoga and non-violence (Satyagraha) to make changes in his local town.
Sometimes you can find real gems in your local library.
Ultimately I developed a two-hour routine of yoga postures and breathing exercises that I did every weekday before leaving for school. I credit this yoga practice with getting me through my stressful high school years. The breathing and meditation exercises that I learned helped me to get through a couple of really bad years of panic attacks after graduating from High School. Thirty years later I finally was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and understood the reason for all the health issues that plagued me then.
Recently my interest in breathing has been revived by a series of books that synchronistically appeared in my life. The first is What Doesn’t Kill Us. . . The author, Scott Carney, appeared on a segment of the Dr. Phil Show as I was flipping the channels. He was demonstrating the breathing technique that I know as the Breath of Fire.
I started reading it, and will give a more detailed review once I finish the book. Scot Carney takes his time getting around to the specifics of the breathing technique, so I took a cyber-jog to my local library’s Overdrive page to search for other books on breathing.
This book gets quickly to the point with various exercises designed to train your diaphragm and expand your breathing capacity while strengthening your core.
While helping a friend clean out their garage before moving out of town, I discovered The Art of Breathing. The author,Nancy Zi, is a singer. She combines the Chinese art of Qigong with classical breathing techniques. When I finish with this book I will also give a more detailed review. Nancy Zi also has a DVD where she demonstrates her techniques.
The word of the day is Synchronicity.