Meditation and Deep Breathing Benefit Your Health and Spirits
"Take a deep breath and relax." Sounds familiar, yet how many of us really know how to relax - or even take a deep breath? For caregivers, who often try to juggle the demands of careers, caring for seniors and your personal lives, the idea of taking time to relax may be impossible. Short breaks and breathing or meditation techniques can relax you, improve your health and give you more energy.
Meditating twice a day can reduce the effects of arteriosclerosis, a change in the blood vessel walls that is a known risk factor for stroke and heart disease, according to a study published in March by the American Heart Association.
Western medicine is only beginning to document the physical benefits of meditating, yoga and other avenues to deep relaxation. Yet practitioners of yoga have known this for thousands of years. Yoga has been clinically shown to lower blood pressure, increase circulation, relieve stress and strengthen the respiratory system. Through yoga, we can increase our physical vitality and mental clarity and heighten our spiritual awareness.
A yoga practice begins with just a breath, the basis of life. Many people breathe shallowly instead of deeply. Therefore, the first step is to learn to take a deep, complete breath.
To begin, put on loose-fitting clothing. Lie flat on your back without a pillow under your head, although you may place a small pillow under your knees to relax your lower back. Exhale completely, then place one hand on your abdomen and one hand in the center of your chest over your heart. Slowly draw air in through your nose. Feel your diaphragm (the muscles and connective tissues separating your chest and abdomen) expand as your breath enters the lower part of your lungs. As you draw in a deeper breath, you'll feel your chest rise as air fills the upper part of your lungs. Slowly exhale through your nose, contracting your abdomen slightly to fully empty your lungs. Repeat three to five times, deepening your breath each time.
Sit up slowly to avoid feeling light-headed. After practicing this exercise for a few days, any light-headedness should pass. It is important not to hurry your breath. Take your time and you will find deep breathing relaxing and soothing. For people who are tense, stressed or worried, practicing complete breathing before bedtime can lead to a better night's sleep. Once you've learned how to breathe completely, you can do so in any position - standing, sitting or lying down.
Now, hold it.
CAUTION: If you have high blood pressure, glaucoma or heart or cerebral problems, avoid holding your breath.
Once you feel comfortable with breathing deeply and fully, you can practice retaining your breath. Inhale deeply for five counts, hold your breath for five counts and exhale slowly for five counts. Maintain awareness of your breath and of how your body feels. Repeat three to five times. Adjust your breathing to your comfort level. If it feels too difficult to inhale for five counts and hold your breath for five counts, try inhaling for three counts, holding your breath for three counts and exhaling slowly for three counts. As you increase the capacity of your lungs, you can move up to five counts.
Many styles of meditation have been shown to help reduce stress, relax the nervous system and lower blood pressure. Buddhist meditation focuses on breathing and emptying the mind of any thoughts except awareness of the breath. Naturally, thoughts tend to intrude. Note them and return to focusing on the breath. Sometimes in Buddhist meditation, chanting is used to help focus and relax the mind. In a similar manner, transcendental meditation teaches its students to focus on a key word or phrase called a "mantra" when meditating.
In the 5,000-year-old practice of yoga, the physical practice of poses, called "asanas," and the meditative and breathing practices link to bring the body, mind and spirit into a balanced, relaxed and healthy state of being. Physical yoga is called "Hatha yoga." "Hatha" is the Sanskrit "Ha," meaning sun, and "Tha," meaning moon. The word "yoga" means "union" or the balancing of opposites, so in "Hatha yoga" you have the balancing of opposite energies.
The key is a fulfilling life to live consciously in our bodies. Then we can live life to the fullest, respecting and nurturing ourselves. When we are at peace, we can express our true potential. We have more to give to ourselves and to others. That's when we can create peace in our worlds, in our relationships and within ourselves.