For Better Health
BREATHING, RELAXATION, MEDITATION
By June Enfinger
The concerns about health issues in our society make me want to jump up on a soap box and shout about a few simple things anybody can easily do to improve their well-being. These things I have learned not from research I have done, but from personal experience. As a yoga practitioner for the last thirty years, I have come to understand their simplicity and effectiveness. As a licensed massage therapist the last fourteen years, I have found that most of my clients have a need for but generally no understanding of these concepts. I suspect this to be true for most people. Following are brief explanations of these practices that may be all you will need to start having a more healthy life.
The way one breathes affects all the systems of the body. Consider how one breathes when startled or emotionally upset – they gasp, breathing rapidly high in the chest and neck. This is a reflex response that begins to trigger the “fight-flight” syndrome and can create stress in many body systems causing responses such as tightened muscles and increased blood pressure. Unfortunately many people have this “upper chest” breathing pattern as their normal way of breathing and create unnecessary stress with each breath. In addition to this, many people habitually hold their breath which causes even greater problems.
What can be done? Simply breathe using the diaphragm muscle, positioned between the chest and abdominal cavities. This type breathing, called DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING, initiates a relaxation response in the body. When this muscle is used to breathe, the upper chest and neck area can remain relaxed and still. If UPPER CHEST BREATHING is habitual, it may take some practice to breathe using the diaphragm, but the positive effects will be quickly evident. The following is a simple practice to feel this muscle working and to strengthen it.
1. Lie on your back as described below.
2. Place a light weight, like a bag of rice, on the upper belly at the bottom of the rib cage.
3. Push the weight up as you inhale and let it drop down as you exhale.
For more detailed information on diaphragmatic breathing see Swami J's web site @ http://www.swamij.com/diaphragmatic-breathing.htm.
After acquainting yourself with this action, you can practice anytime, anywhere in any position. Just feel the expanding at the bottom of the rib cage when you inhale and the letting go and release when you exhale. If you practice breathing this way as often as you can think about it, you will soon do so naturally without thinking and become more calm and relaxed overall. This brings me to my next point.
Much is said about the importance of relaxation for stress reduction, but I find that information about how to relax is not always given. Here are some simple suggestions that I consider essential to this aspect of health care. First, the breathing factor needs to be realized. If you are breathing “wrong” you will not be able to relax completely. As explained above, breathing using the diaphragm muscle initiates the relaxation response in the body and is essential to obtain full relaxation.
Secondly, the most effective, thorough relaxation is a conscious practice of systematically observing the body and mentally instructing the body to relax. Even though engaging in some pleasant distracting activity might be somewhat relaxing, it will not offer the same effects as conscious relaxation. Here is a brief description of a CONSCIOUS RELAXATION practice:
1. Lie down on your back with arms by your sides, palms up and legs open, chin tucked, eyes closed. Use pillows or other support as needed to be comfortable; for instance under the knees. This positioning places the body in a supported, anatomically correct position in which muscle groups can relax.
2. Do this in a quiet undisturbed place.
3. Systematically think of each body part, (head, face, jaw, neck, shoulders, etc.). Notice how each feels as you inhale; tell yourself to “let go, relax” as you exhale, especially in areas where tension is felt.
It takes about 10 minutes to do a good full-body relaxation and it should be done daily to obtain full benefits. Areas in the body that habitually hold stress and tension can be identified and gradually released when worked with regularly.
Notice that this practice involves the body, breath, and mind and allows relaxation at all levels. This also can be very energizing and spiritually uplifting which brings me to my next point.
A regular meditation practice further engages and disciplines the mind. There are many meditation techniques and systems. A beginning practice can be as simple as this:
1. Sit still in a quiet place away from as many distractions as possible.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Become aware of the body, (where it is, how it feels) consciously relax.
4. Observe the breath and breathe as slowly and smoothly as you comfortably can using the diaphragm muscle as described above.
5. Then when the body becomes still and relaxed and the breath smooth and slow, acknowledge the higher self, however you hold that. Let your mind focus on this higher aspect of yourself for as long as comfortable.
6. Slowing let your focus return outward when finished.
This is a process of going inward, away from the external to be renewed at the core of your being. A practice can be as short as five minutes or less to be beneficial. Regular practice awakens the intuition that tends to positively affect all aspects of life. If done regularly first thing in the morning, meditation can help the day’s activities run smoother. Done in the evening before retiring, meditation can “clear the deck” for a more restful night’s sleep. Meditation can bring guidance concerning other issues that may need to be addressed to achieve better health such as exercise and diet.
These three practices are all easy to do by anyone without cost. They all directly address stress which is recognized as a major factor in health issues. Results may be gradual, but with continued practice positive outcomes will be experienced.