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In what new ways might we move our bodies, to propel us forward on our personal quest towards optimal health and well-being? How may we better integrate movement therapies like yoga, tai chi, martial arts or dance into our life, to enhance our health and be more present for the benefit of our co-workers, family and friends?
To answer these questions, we will explore a handful of fundamental principles underlying yoga and other movement traditions. With this discovery of underlying principles, we will seek to reinvigorate the ways in which we move our bodies, increase our awareness and deepen what we are already doing with movement, by doing ever more interesting and integrative patterns of physical movement.
My hope is that by reading this article and experimenting with these concepts, you’ll journey further down your own path of self-discovery. By moving your body in ever more improvisational ways, you may transcend mere performance of your chosen way of exercising, to become a composer in the music of physical movement.
Let’s start with perhaps the most fundamental notion, breathing deeply. How may we best do this? First, by breathing through our nose, whenever possible. In his book, “Body, Mind and Sport,” author John Douillard makes a great case for nose breathing. With the athletes he has worked with, he found that nose breathing temporarily dampened their performance, but they immediately felt calmer and more relaxed while exercising. Over several weeks to several months, the performance of his athletes improved with nose breathing and ultimately was superior to what it formerly was with mouth breathing.
Why the nose? The shape and additional length of the nasal air passageway, nose hair and mucous lining all contribute to humidify and either cool or warm the air, so it is better prepared for absorption in the lungs. Furthermore, nose breathing is the natural way for us to breathe.
Mouth breathing is associated with emergencies and is physiologically linked to “flight or fight” situations. Our nervous system interprets mouth breathing with threats to our survival and therefore can’t relax into the activity at hand. Nose breathing on the other hand relaxes our nervous system, leading to feelings of ease and effortlessness as we move.
Our second breathing technique is to deepen and lengthen our natural breathing cycle by consciously utilizing our abdominal, back and intercostal muscles. Just at the time when our exhalation naturally ends, we simply squeeze out more air by contracting these muscles. Then we relax for our inhalation. Again, just at the point when our inhalation would end, we expand our ribcage and abdominal cavity, letting in a little more air. It’s like an accordion. We simply pull it out a little farther and squeeze it in a bit more, so we are breathing at the outer edges of our capacity.
By repeating this process with each breath, we can dramatically increase the length and depth of each breath, better utilizing the blood-rich lower lobes of our lungs, to more effectively oxygenate our blood.
The third yoga breathing technique, mainly associated with Ashtanga and Power Yoga, is ‘Ujjaii’ breathing, where we slightly constrict our throat, creating a soft sound, akin to the sound of whispering “aahhh.” We can immediately make the proper sound by whispering “aahhh,” then closing our lips. This sound has the effect of slowing the breathing, to help us sustain our efforts over a longer time frame. Furthermore, the sound itself provides a meditative focus. By listening to the quality of this sound, our attention rests in the present moment. Our awareness is less likely to wander into thoughts of the past or future and instead stays more ‘now’ focused.
In our final yoga breathing strategy, we synchronize our breathing with movement. There are two aspects to this. First, when possible, we inhale when opening our arms and arching back. We exhale when rounding our backs and bending forward. Because many yoga postures have side-to-side movement, it may feel natural to inhale while drawing your body into its center and exhale while moving to the outer edges of the stretch. If the movements are being done at a faster pace, simply time the movement to the breath, perhaps synchronizing one to three repetitions on each inhale and the same count on each exhale.
Next, let’s explore fundamental movement itself. Most performing musicians build and retain their technical skill by continually practicing scales. In the same way, we can optimize movement and health in our bodies by practicing fundamental movement. Basically, we must move our bodies in ways that they naturally moved as children, in order to have youthful vitality throughout our lifetime.
While major postures in most forms of yoga have us moving forward, backward and occasionally to the side, Polarity Yoga, Tai-chi, Aikido and modern dance excel at moving our bodies in circles, spirals and figure-eights. The benefits of rounded movement patterns are many: first, our joints, ligaments and tendons get exercised and stretched in dynamic ways that straight angled movements can’t thoroughly do. And we notice that moving in round, fluid patterns, recruits our entire body into the movement, leading to an awareness of how our whole body fluidly joins even the most subtle nuance of any physical movement.
Try this: Trace a figure eight in the air with your wrist as your hand trails behind. Let this movement gently expand, recruiting your elbow and shoulder into the movement. As it continues to expand, you’ll notice how your torso, hips and eventually your entire body is now moving in a spiraling, figure-eight pattern. Now reverse the process, making the patterns more and more contained until you end with the original figure-eight wrist movement. As you reverse the pattern, you may notice a reverberation of the most expanded stage of this movement in your whole body, even while the pattern is physically more contained.
For me, this was a delightful discovery. Any part of us can experience so strong a connection with our whole body, that when that part is moving, our whole body feels like it is in motion. We may notice ripples of a particular physical movement everywhere, just as one stone’s landing reverberates throughout the entire pond.
Let’s pursue this phenomenon even further. What quality of reverberation from one aspect of your life do you experience, as it traverses into other dimensions of your life? For example, when you have strong feelings of frustration or anger, through what pathways do the feeling seem to travel and where in your body do they often arrive? Does frustration or anger manifest for you as contraction and tightness? Perhaps then, your mind fires off sharp, action oriented or even self-deprecating thoughts. Is there a yoga posture or other physical movement that you could do, when the time is right, as an antidote to frustration and anger, to help unwind the physical discomfort, soften the emotionally charged thoughts and dissipate disempowering feelings?
Through yoga, we can transform contraction and tightness, accentuating it by tightening further, then relaxing even more into any pose. Simply stretch to the edge of resistance where you begin to feel just a very slight physical discomfort, (but not so much that that you experience any physical pain.) Inhale, tighten and hold your breath for a bit. Bring your awareness strongly into the physical feeling of contraction and any emotional feeling that this tightened pose elicits. Now let your breath go and relax deeper into the pose. As you breathe, notice the physical unwinding as well as any shift in your feelings. Naturally, you’ll arrive at a new edge of resistance, which may or may not be quite like the first edge. Repeat this process several times, appreciating how being present with tightness and contraction, then consciously letting it go, leads to greater flexibility and expansion than avoidance of uncomfortable feelings could.
In addition to deepening your awareness in poses, you may actively expand your physical range of motion by incorporating this resisting – relaxing process into active pose-to-pose sequences. While in the middle of an exhalation, feel the edge of resistance and momentarily tighten. Immediately relax so the movement never really stops and your exhalation smoothly continues into the new, more expanded edge of the stretch.
Creatively combine poses in sequences that flow nicely for you and feel good to do. By mixing official yoga poses or other orthodox systems of movement into sequences from other movement traditions, we gain the unique, left – right linkage of body and brain.
Yoga integrates. Play at fluidly connecting all aspects of your body, breath and awareness to improvisationally discover fresh, more evolved ways of being. Then bring your own unique approach to compose the most creative, healing and empowering music of your own body and life. For me and perhaps for you, this concert of yoga and movement therapy practice is ever more rich, beautiful and deeply moving.
Along with Bonnett Chandler, Richard and Bonnett practice a variety of natural health modalities at AcuPolarity Massage & Wellness Center. Richard instructs yoga at AgeLess Yoga of St Cloud, Minnesota, USA. Along with other psychologist authors, they own IntegraLife Publishing & Consulting, providing resources for the clients and therapists of psychology and natural health firms.
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