Harness the power of breath

Yoga teacher Juliet McLean demonstrates a simple breathing exercise
Yoga teacher Juliet McLean demonstrates a simple breathing exercise

It's the first and last thing we do in life.

When we come tight-fisted and bawling into the world, we instinctively breathe in.

At the end, we take one last breath.

On the way, many people pay little attention to the ins and outs of that life-giving action.

But it's always there; ready to draw on for peace of mind, energy, core strength and tranquillity.

New Plymouth man Malcolm Potts says tai chi has helped improve his agility and balance, taught him to use breathing for movement, calmness and improving his energy.

When he was 60, he told himself he was old and probably full of arthritis - then he discovered tai chi at an Active in Age class at the TSB Stadium.

'It just grabbed me straight away,' the retired bank manager says.

That was 16 years ago.

Now the 76-year-old moves like a young man and acts like one. He goes to tai chi classes taught by Judi Lee twice a week and goes to a practice class on another day.

In 2000, Malcolm had a triple coronary bypass in Auckland. 'The ICU was on the floor below the ward and as soon as I was off the breathing apparatus I was able to walk up the stairs to the ward, which surprised everybody.'

Malcolm says that when he had a triple bypass he had a collapsed lung. It can take people who have had open-heart surgery two to three days to fully re-inflate a lung.

Not so with Malcolm.

Using tai chi techniques involving breathing from the bottom of the stomach, he took just 10 minutes to get his lung back to normal.

'They were just amazed and said, 'we'll have to encourage our patients to do tai chi before they come'.'

Practising tai chi regularly has also helped calm him. 'I have had all sorts of anxiety problems and tai chi is a big help and the other thing is we have so much fun.'

Revolution Pilates teacher Brooke Foster says breathing controls every movement in this physical fitness system. 'It centres your body and helps realign it,' she says.

'Because breathing is so slow and controlled in Pilates it gives you time for your mind to focus on what areas are going to do the movement.'

Pilates helps with 'core strength', a phrase often tossed about by athletes.

Brooke explains what that means and how Pilates helps.

'The breathing activates your deep abdominal muscles, the core ones, which help stabilise your spine so you are not using your back for things.'

By strengthening these, people will use their 'abs' for lifting and moving, rather than using their backs which can lead to pain and injury.

Along with abdominal exercises, the slow, breathing- controlled exercises also help strengthen the gluteus and pelvic floor muscles.

In many sports, you breathe in and then move. Pilates is mostly the opposite because most of the hardest movements take place after breathing out. 'When you are expelling, all your stomach muscles are engaged and your ribs are in and you are stabilised," Brooke says.

"The breathing is preparing your body.'

Breathing is one of the techniques used in the practice of 'mindfulness'.

To quieten the mind and let thoughts pass by like scudding clouds, people practising mindfulness simply focus on the breath - the inhalation and the exhalation. Notice if it's fast or slow, are you breathing deeply into your stomach or are you breathing from the top of your lungs with your shoulders hunched?

There are many other aspects to the art of mindfulness, including acceptance without judgment, letting go of all expectations and focusing on this moment. When your mind is cluttered, or you can't focus on anything, take a minute or two just to concentrate on breathing.

Art of Mindfulness courses have been running in the community for some time, many through the Taranaki District Health Board, where they were initiated by former mental health clinical director Dr Samir Heble.

Today's director, Dr Hester Swart, wants to emphasise that mindfulness practices and their benefits have been known in the East for centuries.

He says these practices started to creep into Western medicine about 30 years ago and there are several big names, particularly John Kabat-Zinn, who have promoted their use in medicine and mental health.

Clinical psychologist Debra Oliver says there are two main types of breathing exercises.

One is geared towards slowing down the breath, 'perhaps with a focus on breathing in calm and breathing out tension to change one's experience'.

The other is being mindful of breath and observing what is happening in the body without changing it.

'I want to emphasise that mindfulness, breathing, relaxation, while very important tools, are not a panacea.'

She has worked with people who find mindfulness of breath helpful because it gives them time and space to choose to act in positive ways.

'This is rather than being reactive and behaving in ways they later regret or that maintain their difficulties.'

Mindfulness of breath is also part of Iyengar Yoga, says teacher and 'novice' practitioner Juliet McLean.

She says that breathing is a deliberate practice, like posture. 'It operates in a different system in the body," Juliet says.

'The postures are quite physical and the breath is working on the Pranayamic force - the life force.

'Physically it slows you down and nourishes your system.'

Iyengar yoga is gentle, especially for beginners.

'A beginner is someone who has been practising for 20 to 30 years - that's what my teacher says.'

In her classes, Juliet uses blankets and other supports to help people open different parts of the body, which she describes as a 'container'.

Using different postures, which are like holds or grips, the breath is able to be sent to different parts of the body.

The breath is all-important for yoga.

'Your senses are turning inwards towards the breath. In doing that you are trying to harness the chattering mind. That's hard for us sensual creatures - it's a way to bring about that mindfulness.'

A simple exercise is to lie on your back, supported by blankets, arms out wide to open up the chest, and just focusing on breathing deeply into the stomach, holding and letting go to exhale.

Juliet, who has been practising Iyengar yoga for six years, says people would benefit greatly from just 10 minutes of mindful breathing every day.

However, coming to a class would be even better, because then they would learn about supported alignment of the body. She and Tria Peters take several classes, including 50-minute lunchtime lessons in the King's Building in central New Plymouth. 'For busy people it's a nice thing to offer.'

For all of us, inhaling and exhaling is literally the breath of life.

LINKS bksiyengar.com/ yoga.org.nz/new–plymouth.htm mindfullivingprograms.com/whatMBSR.php acetaranaki.ac.nz/courses/109-tai-chi-chuan-stratford revolutionpilates.co.nz/welcome-to-revolution-pilates

Taranaki Daily News