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Breathing and Stress

The way you breathe is the way you live your life. Actually, the words for spirit, meaning life force and breath, are the same in many languages. For example, in Sanskrit it is called prana; in Hebrew ruach; in Greek pneuma; in Latin spiritus. In English, to inhale is to inspire - that is, to take in the spirit. To exhale is to expire - to release the spirit. The word conspire literally means to breathe together." All of life can be observed as a taking in and giving out, as movement and rest, as controlling and letting go.

Experienced body therapists report dramatic changes in people who start to practice full breathing. Breathing heightens awareness and encourages the release of long-held tensions. Tears, deep sighs, and the recollection of old and painful memories commonly accompany deep massage or manipulation of the muscles involved in respiration.

A psychologist described a game he used to play as a child. He had practiced the ability to control his respiration so completely that he used to challenge his brother to detect any movement that would indicate breathing. He was trying to make himself invisible - to insulate himself from hurtful emotional situations. As an adult, he found that this self-protective approach had become a source of great sadness, of joylessness. Now that he has become aware of what he has been doing, he frequently checks whether he is breathing fully, and he uses daily exercise to encourage richer breathing. He claims that his whole vitality is richer as a result.

How do you breathe? How would you describe your general approach to living?

"I knew I was back in the driver's seat in my life," reported a prominent college professor, "when I smiled at the elevator in my office building." He went on to tell the story about this slow, unreliable elevator, which had become such a great source of stress and frustration to him over the years. Day after day he waited for it, pacing anxiously, checking his watch, cursing it. One day, he became involved in a research experiment on the campus and learned a simple technique of relaxation. This involved a short, daily practice of rhythmic breathing and the repetition of a positive word - a mantra. The discipline was enjoyable, and the study intriguing, so he kept it up. The morning that he found himself smiling at the elevator, he woke up to a whole new appreciation for life. He credited the change to the relaxation practice, and has stayed with it ever since.

Stories of this nature are becoming commonplace in the literature about relaxation and consciousness development. Nearly all of the relaxation techniques include the use of breath control or breath awareness. No longer the sole privilege of spiritual adepts, these practices are being encouraged, and adopted, by educational and industrial groups because they show results. Educational consultants train classroom teachers in relaxation methods that serve to both reduce stress and encourage creativity in children. Biofeedback/neurofeedback training, which relies heavily on slower, deeper breathing, is receiving acceptance throughout the medical community. Large companies are incorporating workshops in stress management and meditation for their employees because they find it beneficial. Many of these stress-reducing techniques include using breathing for relaxation.

As a society we are constantly exposed to anxiety-producing circumstances that cause excess tension. Driving our car to work; the pressures of job production, deadlines, term papers; the noise of technology; the music on the radio - all of these can set us on edge so easily that we tend to lose touch with what life would be like without them.

If you have recently found yourself in a situation in which you were threatened - a near accident, the start of an important examination - you may recall that breathing came with some difficulty. Anger, fear, sedentary work, the pace of fast-food restaurants, and the nightly news - to name a few - may cause a dramatic change in your breathing. Slowing down, attuning to the breath, taking a few deep inhalations and exhalations will assist you in releasing the unnecessary distress that builds up so easily.

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