Tag Archive: breathing


 immortal
Revered for its ability to jolt the practitioner into ever deepening states of awareness, this specialised breathing technique has been passed from teacher to student for hundreds of years across many ancient traditions, including hatha yoga, tantra, taoist chi gong, the six yogas of Naropa (Tibetan yoga), and many of the martial arts. So what is the this technique, and how does it have such a profound effect on the practitioner? First let’s take a look at the basic technique and how it is described by the traditions that utilise it, then we’ll take a look at what’s going on at the physiological level.
The technique goes by many names: Vase breathing, Reverse crane breathing, Shakti chalana, Ibuki, etc. The list goes on. While each tradition describes this technique in its own unique way, essentially they are all teaching the same physical sequence. Here’s the exercise in it’s basic form: Breathe in, push the air down into your abdomen (lower lungs). While holding your breath bare down as if you’re going to the toilet. At the same time, pull up your sphincter, perineum, and, if you’re female, contract the muscles inside your cervix. Hold for as long as you are comfortable then slowly exhale. Inhalation and exhalation are done through the nose.
In the Taoist traditions this is said to build chi and light the fire in your lower tan tien to initiate the gestation cycle of the immortal fetus (a type of inner spiritual alchemy that is said to eventually transform the practitioner into an immortal).  In Yoga talk the practice is said to fuse prana and apana (downward and upward moving energy) in the navel chakra, which causes kundalini (a dormant spiritual force) to awaken and begin her ascent to the crown chakra where she blesses the yogi with self realisation and a host of siddhis (powers of the mind). The tantra texts describe this as a type of divine marriage of energies within the body, a marriage that lifts the practitioner into states of pure blissful awareness. Starting to realise why this was and still is seen as such an important practice?
From a western, physiological, perspective by drawing up and contracting the muscles of the perineum, anus, and cervix you have stimulated/activated the pelvic splachnic nerves. These are the nerves that cause genital arousal and subsequently turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates a relaxation and healing effect on the body. Secondly by pushing down the breath, you activate the vagus nerve. This activation can actually generate orgasm in a woman, but more importantly it deactivates areas of the brain that cause fear and emotional distress, such as the amygdala. So effectively, it makes you emotionally centred (to a degree). It also releases a host of hormones and neuro chemicals into your body that positively change your mental, emotional, and physical state of being. Plus, like the splachnic nerves, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
With all this nervous system activity happening from a simple breath holding technique lots of brain changes also take place, as you can imagine, changes that are conducive to meditation and deep states of awareness. Those changes are usually visible on brain scans after only four weeks of practice.

So, there you have it. If you want to accelerate your practice, or just add a powerful anti-stress technique to your repertoire, introduce this to your daily routine. You’ll see the benefits in a few weeks 🙂

Stress makes you stupid

Actually, stress makes you stupid, sick, and smelly.

Now that’s a good incentive to learn to relax and destress with slow, deep breathing. So why does stress make us stupid, sick, and smelly? We can answer that question by looking at why we get stressed in the first place.

Stress is your body’s natural reaction to a threat to your safety and wellbeing. A classic example is to look at what happens to you when you find yourself face to face with an aggressive dog. Your heart rate increases, your digestive system dramatically slows down, your pupils dilate, your blood pressure increases, your breathing becomes shallow and fast, you begin to sweat, and your muscles and heart become engorged with blood as your skin turns pale from the blood being redirected. All of these things happen because of the release of stress hormones preparing your body for fight or flight in response to a threat. In the short-term this type of response can save your life, however, if you experience stress every day, all day, because your boss happens to be an asshole that bullies and abuses you, or you have an aggressive partner, etc, then that type of reaction going on in your body all the time is unsustainable. Eventually you’ll burn yourself out.

From a health point of view, being in a continuous state of stress strains your heart, increases your chances of having a stroke due to high blood pressure, and lowers your immune function because all of the body’s energy is being used elsewhere, which increases your susceptibility to infection and even increases your risk of getting cancer. Where health is concerned STRESS is your body’s enemy.

The effects of stress don’t just stop with the body, they spill over into the realms of the mind. When you get stressed the flow of blood in your brain decreases in your frontal lobes and is redirected to your hind brain and emotional brain. This means your ability to think rationally and plan ahead is severely hampered. Essentially stress turns you into a puppy. Seriously, when you’re under stress you act more like a puppy than a human. This is why it’s never a good idea to make decisions when you’re under stress unless you absolutely have to.

What about smelling bad?  Think about the original example of the dog, or maybe it’s a lion or a bear. When you get stressed, your body will begin to sweat. The more stressed you are the more profusely you’ll sweat. Why? Two reasons. One, sweating lubricates your body and makes it easier to escape the grip of whatever it is your faced with, and secondly, when you get stressed the sweat you excrete tends to smell bad. That’s not a great thing if your on your way to your new girlfriend/boyfriend’s house to meet your future parents in law! But it’s very useful when you’re faced with a predator that wants to eat you for dinner because when food smells bad, it’s a sign that it’s gone off. And even animals don’t like to eat food that will make them sick.

So there you have it. Stress makes you stupid, sick, and smelly. WHat can you do about it. Simple. Learn to slow your breathing and you’ll be able to control your stress levels 😉

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I love how some of the simplest yoga practices turn out to have the most profound effects upon me.  

Most people think of yoga as sets of excruciatingly painful postures followed by hours of meditation and strange cleansing rituals. And while this is how some people like to practice “yoga,” there’s also an entirely different side to this fascinating way of life that most people never even realise exists. That way is simplicity itself. It’s such a deceptively simple path that when you’re on it you wake up one morning wondering how you’ve made so much progress with such little effort. It’s a way of practicing yoga that I like to call the path of the five kings.

The five kings are a set of simple practices. They’re what the ancient yogic texts describe as practices that can bring about liberation without the need to do anything else. Those practices are: Siddhasana (the perfect posture), Bramacharya (moderation), Ahimsa (nonviolence), Kevala (breath suspension), and Kechari (mudra of the void).

How do they work?

Siddhasana (perfect posture) is a basic sitting posture used by yogic adepts, when meditating, in which the heel of one foot is placed against the perineum (between the anus and genitals) with the second foot resting in front of the first (or, in an advanced posture, pressed against the pubic bone). 

So what’s so special about siddhasana? Apart from providing a stable sitting position for meditation, the position the feet are placed in causes the mind to drift into a naturally meditative state. This happens for two reasons. Firstly, the blood flow to the legs is lessened which leaves more blood flowing in the upper body, keeping the mind alert and focused, and secondly the pressure applied to the nerves in the perineum has an interesting effect on the breathing centres at the base of the brain that cause the breathing to become light, slow, and steady. And slowing the breath, as we know, calms the mind (I’ve discussed at length in previous posts).

Isn’t that amazing. Simply changing the way you sit can catapult you forward on the path of yoga.

The second king, as I call it, is Ahimsa (nonviolence). This, for me, is a no-brainer. It’s quite simple really, by practicing nonviolence we’re cultivating a state of mind that’s conducive to peace, and a mind that’s at peace is a mind free of turmoil, a mind that naturally gains stability and focus (traits essential for progress to be made in meditation).

Bramacharya (moderation) is the third king. By practicing moderation we’re wiring the brain in a very specific manner. We’re wiring it in a way that allows us to exercise tremendous control over our thoughts (an essential ability we need to develop if we want to meditate correctly). The other element of Bramacharya is more physical. It says that every yogi, who wants to make progress, should moderate their food intake. The reasoning for this is simple and really obvious once you think about it. When you eat , your body directs its energy into the digestive processes. The more food you eat and the more time you spend eating it, the more energy it uses. When your body is busy digesting food the mind becomes dull and tired and incapable of meditating. So simply eating in moderation has powerful effects on your state of mind.

The fourth king is Kevala. Kevala is a special type of breath suspension that happens spontaneously when the yogi reaches deep levels of concentration, meditation and absorption. This is a state I’ve experienced many times during deep meditation. it feels as if there is no need to breathe in or out, your lungs stop moving but it feels as if the air around you still permeates them. What’s interesting about this is that we can trigger deep states of meditation by consciously slowing the breath so that it becomes barely perceptible. Although this isn’t technically kevala, it does apply the same idea. Amazing results come from this simplest of practices.

The fifth and final king is Kechari mudra which I’m not going to go into details about here because I’ve spoken about it at length in a number of previous posts.

So there you have it. Simply changing the way you sit, altering your eating habits, cultivating nonviolence, and slowing your breathing, promotes a powerful effect on your mind – acting like rocket fuel on your yogic journey.

 

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More concept art. This illustrates how changing our breath rhythm influences the nervous system, and subsequently the mind. In essence, fast breathing creates stress and agitation of the mind, whereas slow breathing creates a calm and content mind.

Useful to know in a modern world filled with manufactured stress and fear.

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In short: Practice mula bandha to generate bliss, inner power and an expanded state of mind.
And here’s the explanation:
The maps we’re given, in the form of various disciplines, spiritual paths, religions, etc, are the result of a reverse engineering, or a retracing of the steps of those who have made the journey to self realisation before us. I know this seems obvious, but when you think about it, it’s really quite ingenius.
When the mind begins to expand, and the inner and outer realities of the yogin begin to merge, many changes take place in the brain, changes that initiate a new level of functioning in the nervouse system. This has the knock on effect of making the body operate in a way that promotes awakening and self realisation, a type of evolution.
When yogins of the past went through their awakening process they became aware of physical changes happening in their body as their mind began to expand. Understanding that the body and mind are locked into a two way process, in which changes in the mind effect the body and changes in the body effect the mind, many of these yogins categorised the physical manifestations of the enlightenment process which later became a road map of their journey for others to follow. We can see many of these road maps to enlightenment as we read through the ancient texts of the east and west, with a large concentration of them found within the texts of the yogic traditions.
Over the next while I’ll try to dilineate the techniques I’ve found particularly useful while walking my path, which is a synergy of martial and yogic disciplines. These techniques, in yogic terminology, consist of Bandhas (energy seals), Pranayama (breathing methods), and, to a lesser degree, asana (postures). So lets begin with mula bandha, a technique used in both yoga and the martial arts, a technique that acts as a key to unlock the door leading to bliss and inner power.
Mula Bandha – Seal of the base
Mula bandha, on a purely physical level, involves a contraction and drawing up of the perineal muscles (located between the anus and genitals). When first attempting to apply this muscle contraction it can be difficult to isolate the perineum from the other muscles in the area, but with regular practice it becomes a simple task. The idea is to practice it regularly throughout your day.
As with many yogic practices, over time, mula bandha becomes very subtle. In fact, there will come a time when you will be able to simply hold your concentration on the area of the perineum, and this alone will cause the muscles to contract and go into a light spasm. Once we have reached this level, a type of inner bliss begins to arise from within the body. I feel it as a mild orgasmic sensation that radiates outwards, flowing down the legs and up into the abdomen. It’s like a warm, tingling excitement spreading throughout the body.
A simple practice
Here’s a simple practice I like to use. Sitting in a comfortable position. Begin by establishing a slow and steady breathing pattern. Don’t try too hard. The idea is to relax, not get stressed. So just take a deep breath, let out a nice long sigh, and let your breathing settle on its own. Once you’ve done this, bring your attention to the inward and outward flow of the breath. As you breathe in, lightly apply mula bandha, and as you breathe out, release mula bandha. And that’s it. Practice in this way for as long as you like, it will bring you many physical and mental benefits.
Deepening the meditative state
As well as the sense of vitality and energy mula bandha is capable of bringing into our lives, it also has a deeper purpose. When related to the process of awakening and expanding consciousness, mula bandha has a special connection with the medulla, the hind brain. As we begin to use mula bandha on a more regular basis, something interesting begins to happen. We start to gain control over areas of the body science tells us we shouldn’t be able to control. One of the first manifestations of this that I noticed in my earlier years of practice was the calming effect mula bandha had upon the breathing* cycle and heart rate.
*Just as a point of interest, in the healing aspect of the martial arts, it is said that strong sudden pressure applied to the perineum is capable of restarting the lungs after they have gone into respiratory arrest.
Because the mind is so intimately connected with the breathing cycle (we’ll look at this in much more detail when discussing pranayama), the effect of a calm steady breathing cycle is a calm and undisturbed mind, which, in this state, begins to expand.
The martial connection
In the martial arts, we are taught an interesting technique that involves a stronger contraction of the perineum. Basically, as we are executing a physical technique, whether it’s a strike, throw, block, etc., we are taught to breathe out. And while breathing out we are taught to push down and expand the lower abdomen as we apply mula bandha. Although this feels counter intuitive at first, its effects are truly amazing. When we breathe and contract our muscles in this way, there is a kind of knitting together of the muscles in the lower and upper body. This knitting together allows the entire body to move as one unit, all in the same direction. The effects of this are a tremendous increase in physical power. So, as a result, you get these old, frail looking masters of the martial arts (who have perfected this technique) making what look like effortless flicks of the wrist, in defence to an attacker who ends up being flung through the air.
What’s even more interesting than the almost superhuman power these guys are capable of issuing is the remarkable sense of calm and serenity that they radiate. I often wonder if they’ve realised the connection to mula bandha.
Awakening
In terms of awakening the brain, and subsequently the mind, mula bandha awakens the hind brain. In the next post I’ll look at two closely related practices, those being agni sara (fire cleansing) and uddiyana bandha (flying upwards seal). Both of which deeply affect the emotional centres of the brain.

Awakening the serpent fire

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Just as my awareness reached the point where it seemed as if nothing existed, I felt my head explode and as it did, my awareness spread outwards in every direction. I felt as if I was both everything and nothing, simultaneously existing and not existing.

 – From my personal diary

Kundalini (coiled serpent) is the spiritual power that, in most people, lays dormant at the base of the spine. When she awakens, she makes her way up through the spiritual centres, called chakras, until she reaches the highest spiritual centre, the sahasrara chakra, where she unites with her consort, shiva. As Kundalini and shiva unite, the Sadhak (spiritual aspirant) enters a deep meditative trance where he/she becomes one with the universe.

The path of kundalini, also called the path of fire, is filled with many dangers and for that reason is only suited for certain Sadhaks (spiritual aspirants). If Kundalini rises through the wrong channel, even though various siddhis (yogi powers) arise, many physical and mental illnesses manifest in the practitioner, sometimes ending in death.

What follows is my story of how Kundalini woke me up to the world.

The Awakening

Five years ago, in late Spring, I had just finished my morning practices, which consisted of breathing and Meditation. As I lay down on my back to allow the energy generated by my practices flow through me, a sudden panic set in as I realised my body was completely paralysed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t even move my eyes; every part of me was frozen.

Soon after the paralyses set in, I began to feel something moving just beneath the surface of my skin. It felt like dozens of worms wriggling and moving upwards, starting in my lower legs and making their way towards my upper thighs and sacrum (tail bone). As they progressed up my legs, they grow in size and reduced in number, as if they were merging into one.

My dying breath

Once the worms, which were more like two snakes at this stage, reached my upper legs, they merged into one large snake. This powerful snake entered my sacrum and began moving up my spinal column, one vertebrae at a time. As she moved through my spine, each vertebrae she moved through, completely disintegrated.

As the snake ascended, I became increasingly panicked. And by the time she reached the level of my heart, I thought I was going to die. At this point, I completely surrendered to the process; I accepted my impending death.

Once I accepted my death, the process became much smoother and almost enjoyable, although still scarier than anything else I had ever experienced.

As she moved into my chest, she forced her way into my heart, which felt as if it exploded into a billion pieces. As this happened, I released a deep sigh, after which my breathing became completely suspended. I thought it was my dying breath, but strangely, I was still conscious, still existing in this thing, this body I call my self. From this stage on, my mind became completely serene. Even though I thought I was dying, I was absolutely at peace with the process.

The grand finale: my orgasmic brain

As the serpent emerged from my heart, she continued moving up through my spine until she reached the point at the base of my skull. She paused there for a few moments as if preparing for her final ascent. Then as she penetrated my skull, my tongue physically rolled back and pushed up behind my soft palate, penetrating my nasal cavity, with the tip of my tongue touching a soft spot directly above my nasal septum. As this happened, it was like having a thousand orgasms all at once, in my brain. In this moment, everything around me disappeared as my awareness was turned completely inward.

Just as my awareness reached the point where it seemed as if nothing existed, I felt my head explode and as it did, my awareness spread outwards in every direction. I felt as if I was both everything and nothing, simultaneously existing and not existing.

The sense of being everything and nothing at the same time seemed to go on for an eternity.

Re-entry: My descent into a world of illusion

After a period of time, I’m not sure how long, my awareness re-entered the physical body. It felt as if the universe was breathing me into physical existence. Moments after entering my body, my lungs expanded as I took my first breath in this new state of expanded awareness.

For about three months after this experience, I felt as if I was floating around in a world of illusion. Everything I looked at had a glow emanating from it. Living things had auras of vibrant colour that expanded further than I could see. Each aura was connected to the things around it. Watching the world in this way was like living in a dream. I watched waves of energy dancing across the sky, witnessing scenes that I could never hope to describe in a physical sense.

Gradually, over the next six months, I settled back into a more normal state of perception, mostly because I stopped my practices, in fear of leaving my body and not returning 

The after effects

Although, five years later, I still experience many after effects from this kundalini awakening, I am for the most part able to function as a “normal human being.” But in saying that, there are two after effects that are of deeper significance than the others. One is the ability to apply something called Kechari mudra. This is the name used to describe when the tongue is pushed up behind the soft palate, into the nasal cavity. Doing this has many powerful effects upon the body and mind, effects I’ll discuss in my next post. The second after effect is called Shaktipat, the ability to initiate the awakening of another person’s kundalini. This is something I’ll also look at in a later post.

A visual journey

I made some drawings soon after my kundalini experience to visually illustrate the process of awakening I went through. I’ll upload them, hopefully tomorrow 🙂

 

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While walking by the river in Sligo town with my daughter Aoife, the beautiful swan pictured above came over to say hello.  

Our brief meeting with that swan reminded of a powerful practice called hansa yoga, a practice that is both basic and advanced. Basic in that it’s a simple exercise of following the breath, and advanced in that it’s a powerful mantra capable of arousing the spiritual power called kundalini shakti that lays dormant within us.

The practice is simple. To do it, you sit, stand or lie in a comfortable position. Then, listening to the sound of your breath, as you inhale, visualise a stream of light flowing up through your spine and out into the universe, and as you exhale, visualise a stream of light flowing in from the universe, through your head, and down your spine. During the inhalation phase, sub-vocally make the sound sa, and during the exhalation phase, sub-vocally make the sound han.

This is a very deep subject that probably needs more explanation than I’m about to give it. So, I’ll expand on what I write here in a later post.

Hansa as a mechanism of Samadhi

Hansa is the natural mantra generated by the breath and movement of the prana (energy) through the nadis (energy channels). According to yogic science, It’s this movement of prana through the nadis that causes consciousness to arise. The aim of Yoga is to unite the up-moving prana with the down-moving prana. This unification causes the energy to stop moving, stilling the mind and allowing samadhi (self absorption) to occur.

Han and sa are the sounds of the prana (downward moving energy) and apana (upward moving energy). In using the hansa sadhana (spiritual practice), you are mixing the two of these energies together, which eventually stills the consciousness.

Inner meaning

The meaning of the mantra is “I am that.” I am is the awareness of self, the first point of consciousness arising in duality.

Now, the breath is the sustaining power that binds us to physical existence. As we breathe hansa (I am that), we are binding ourselves to duality. I am that is the cosmic vibration that pulls the SELF into duality, through identification. Keeping this in mind, you can note the following about kundalini shakti. Shakti is the power of the self, the creator of this illusory, phenomenal existance. So you can see that shakti manifests itself through the principle of hansa (I am that).

By consciously using the hansa mantra, you are awakening the sleeping shakti and calling her to the first point of duality within you, which is energetically located at the third eye. This is what’s called raising the kundalini, which leads to the breathless state (nirbikalpa samadhi). 

Whew, how did such a simple post end up getting so full on?!

In my next post, I’ll talk about my own kundalini awakening and somehow explain how yoga relates to Bushido (the way of the warrior).

Awareness: life’s master key

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It just occurred to me that I’ve been writing all of these posts on things I think are important, but while doing this, I’ve managed to completely forget about the most important part of a warrior’s training and of life itself: Awareness.

“Without awareness, we can’t function in the world.”

The greater our level of awareness, the more we’re able to interact with our inner and outer environments. We can see this in the cycle of life and death; a new born baby will have very little awareness of the outside world, and for that reason her ability to interact with it is very limited. But as she grows and her senses begin to awaken, she gets better at interacting with her surroundings. So instead of only being able to cry, which can mean she’s hungry, tired, in pain, etc., she starts to point at food, or she holds her knee when she falls and hurts herself. As she grows into a young girl, she begins to talk and interact even more, enjoying her sensory experience of the world around her. But as she matures into adulthood, her senses gradually diminish in their capacity to recieve information from the world. This continues until, eventually, she grows into an elderly woman taking her last breath. As she leaves this world, her senses start shutting down. And as her awareness is drawn inward, her connection with the outer world fades. This cycle can be seen throughout nature, in every aspect of life.

Have your cake and eat it

You can think of awareness like this. Imagine, in front of you, a beautifully presented plate filled with the most delicious food you ever set your eyes upon. If you’re completely devoid of awareness, you won’t even know the plate exists, and you’ll miss the best food tasting experience of your life.

But let’s say you have some level of awareness, just enough to recognise that there’s a plate of food in front of you. Because your awareness is so low, you won’t appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the food, nor will you appreciate its taste. This is because we have two types of awareness, one being inner awareness and the other outer awareness. Inner awareness tells us about the inner environment of our body and mind, while outer awareness tells us about our surroundings.

So, looking at the example of the plate of food, as our awareness increases our experience of the food deepens. We start to see colours, which become more and more vibrant, various aromas are revealed to us, which keep increasing in their complexity, and bursts of flavour explode in our mouth with each bite we take.

“Increased awareness deepens our experience and appreciation of life. Deeper appreciation is expressed as gratitude. And as we experience Gratitude, we draw new, positive experiences into our life.”

Although the plate of food example is a good one, it doesn’t quite demonstrate the importance of increased awareness to its fullest. To do this, let me use an example from the warrior traditions.

Don’t just stand there!

If I have no awareness and someone decides to punch me in the face. I’m not going to move, I’m simply going to stand there and get punched. Worse still, because I don’t have any awareness, I’m not going to feel any pain. So, if that person decides to punch me again and again, I’m going to let him do it until my body can’t take any more punishment, at which point, it shuts down and I die.

The more awareness I have, the better are my chances of surviving a punch, or multiple punches to the face. In fact, if my awareness is deep enough, I’ll never even get into a situation where someone is going to punch me. This same idea applies to all situations in life. The deeper our awareness of our inner state of being and our outer environment, the better we become at navigating our way through the river of life.

Flex your awareness muscle

Developing better awareness is as simple as developing stronger muscles; you just have to exercise your mind. So how do we do that? We focus our attention on what we’re doing. Most of us aren’t very good at that, you know.

By focussing attention, I mean really focussing. That means getting out of autopilot mode, and actively engaging in what we’re doing. For instance, if you’re driving, pay more attention to the road, the other vehicles around you, your reactions to traffic, etc. Focussing in this way takes more practice than you might imagine. Just try sit for a few minutes while paying complete attention to your breathing, focussing on the air flowing in and out of your lungs. Notice how distracted you become, and how your awareness begins to drift, as you start thinking about what you’ll have for lunch, or how you forgot to feed the cat, etc.

If you focus in this way regularly enough, your awareness will grow and your experience of life will become deeper and richer. Enjoy.

For a nice look at the yogic understanding of awareness take a look at Jenni Burke’s Blog.

A FROZEN STATE OF MIND

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“Most people, because the body doesn’t know the difference between stimulation from the external environment and fabricated emotions, live in the past, basing their reactions on past experiences.” – Joe Dispenza

About a year ago, I interviewed Dr. Joe Dispenza and Professor Ian Robertson on the subject of neuroplasticity, for Positive Life Magazine. The insights they offered during those interviews changed my entire reality.

Over the next week I’ll be posting the most important elements of each interview, while offering a few of my own comments, explaining how each insight can help us in our lives, whether we follow the path of the warrior, the healer, the teacher or the parent, etc.

Change

To understand the process of change, Joe Dispenza describes the mind-body relationship as follows: “Every time you have a thought, you make a chemical. Specific emotions turn on certain circuits in your brain that fire in various combinations to produce a level of mind. That level of mind stimulates another part of your brain to release a chemical so you can begin to feel exactly the way you think. The moment you begin to feel the way you think, because the brain is in constant communication with the body, you begin to think the way you feel, and the cycle continues. This cycle, for some people, can go on for 20 years. The repetition of the cycle conditions the body to memorise an emotional reaction better than the conscious mind, and whenever the body knows better than the mind, it’s called a habit.

“The repetition of this cycle creates a state of being. A state of being is when our mind and body are working together and our thoughts and emotions are aligned to a concept. So a person says I am insecure or sad… etc.

“Most people, because the body doesn’t know the difference between stimulation from the external environment and fabricated emotions, live in the past, basing their reactions on past experiences.”

My comments: What this means is that a single thought, repeated regularly, creates a state of being. So, if I repeatedly think, “I’m a negative person,” I’ll become negative, or if I think, “I’m happy”, happiness will become my state of being. If the warrior, about to engage in combat, regularly thinks he/she is not good enough and is going to lose the fight, he/she will lose every time. This is something that should be remembered when we’re facing any task in life. A positive state of mind is essential if we want to create a state of being that’s conducive to success.

Breaking your emotional conditioning

One of the most interesting facts I learned while speaking with Joe was that the hormones we produce from an emotional reaction only last in the body for one to three minutes, unless we keep them going by our own volition. In which case, they can last for many years, as in the previous example.

We can benefit ourselves and escape this trap by learning how to shorten our emotional reactions to things. Joe tells us, “If you don’t know how to control your emotional reactions and there’s a refractory period, and you let that emotional reaction linger for hours or days, it turns into a mood.

“So you say to someone, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ The person says, ‘I’m in a mood.’ Then you say, ‘why are you in a mood?’ They say, ‘well, this thing happened to me five days ago and I memorised my initial reaction.’ If you keep that refractory period going for weeks and months, you’ve developed a temperament. If you keep that same refractory period going on for years, it’s called a personality trait,” says Joe.

“When we begin to develop personality traits based on our emotions, we’re living in the past and that’s where we get stuck. Teaching ourselves and our children to shorten the refractory period frees us to move through life without obstruction.”

My Comments: It always amazes me at how my two-year-old daughter deals with her emotions. If she falls and hurts her knee, she reacts to the pain by screaming and crying for a minute or two, then forgets about it and goes back to what she was doing before her accident. Young children don’t linger on their emotional reactions and for that reason, they don’t get emotionally stuck in a specific state of being.

As toddlers grow and pick up bad emotional habits from their surroundings, they learn to hold onto their emotional state of being. This conditioning process carries on for most of us in to adult-hood, haunting us until our dying breath.

How can we break this cycle of conditioning? There are a few techniques we can use. Following on from my previous post on breathing, I’ll offer a simple breathing technique that can quickly change your state of being which gives you time and space to create a new thought and state of body and mind.

Technique:

  1. Sit comfortably and loosen any tight clothing.
  2. Take three deep breaths.
  3. Now, contract your abdominal muscles to rapidly force the air out of your lungs.
  4. Relax your abdomen to allow your lungs to draw in air.
  5. Steps 3 and 4 should follow each other in quick succession.
  6. Continue breathing in this way for 20 breaths.
  7. Take three deep breaths.
  8. Begin a new cycle of rapid breathing.
  9. Do a maximum of 5 cycles.

This type of breathing originates in the yogic traditions of India, and is used to clear the mind before meditation. In terms of our state of being, using this breathing technique allows us to quickly let go of negative states of being. Incidentally, it also promotes the generation of a positive, uplifted state of being because of the rush of endorphins (feel-good hormones) released from the lungs and the respiratory muscles.

Have a try of this technique and let me know how it works for you.

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The Short Version: Use Rhythmic breathing (inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four) to override the stress response and positively influence how you see the world.

The Full Version, with explanations:

When we get angry, fearful, or begin to experience any other extreme emotion, our breathing cycle changes, and as it does, our body and mind undergo rapid physiological transformations. Yet, conversely, if we manage to steady ourselves for just a moment, during those turbulent emotional states, and we pause to take a slow, deep breath, everything begins to settle down as our mind drifts back to a calm state and our body releases tension.

These observations on breathing cycles and how changing the rhythm of our breath can instantly generate changes in our mental, emotional and physical states of being aren’t anything new. They’ve been understood and practiced for millennia, by the yogis of India and Tibet, the Toaist masters of China, and the Shamans of the Americas, as well as many other ancient cultures. It was from the Indian and Chinese cultures that specific breath control practices made their way into the Japanese warrior traditions. In fact, these practices are so powerful that they’re used not only by martial artists, but by the modern military to help soldiers control their physiological responses during high stress situations, situations that would otherwise be so overwhelming, the soldiers wouldn’t be able to function.

THE BASIC PRINCIPLE

The basic principle of breath control says that rapid, shallow breathing excites the nervous system and activates its sympathetic branch. This is the branch of the nervous system responsible for pushing the body into overdrive when the fight or flight response is triggered by our body’s response to stress. Whereas slow, deep breathing has the opposite effect, switching on the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. This part of the nervous system has a relaxing effect on the body and mind, effectively overriding the sympathetic branch and brings the body into a state of rest and recuperation, promoting long-term health. In an ideal world, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system would regulate the body for 99.9% of our lives, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most of us. In fact, for most of us, and especially those of us living hectic and stressful lives, the sympathetic branch is active 50% of the time. This means we’re spending half of our lives in a stressful state of being, a state of being that causes all sorts of physical, mental and emotional problems, and one that warps our view of the world.

The good news is that using the basic principle described above, we can take control of our nervous system, which means we now have two very simple yet powerful methods of changing the way we perceive and react to the world around us, the other method involves changing our postural habits as I discussed in my last post.

Before describing the specific breathing techniques used to change the activity of the nervous system, let’s take a moment to look at the stress response, as this is the root cause of sympathetic nervous system activation, and the silent enemy that every modern warrior must learn to overcome.

THE STRESS RESPONSE

The stress response is the body and mind’s physiological reaction to a perceived threat. That threat can be real or imagined; the body doesn’t know the difference. This means, for example, if you see a snake in a dimly lit room, you’ll experience the stress response, and if you’re particularly scared of snakes, that response will increase in severity. Now, if you manage to overcome your fear and make it across the room to turn on the light, you’ll realise that there was no snake; it was just a harmless piece of rope all along. The point of this is that your body and mind still respond to a threat whether it’s real or imagined. What’s important to remember with this is that we, more often than not, imagine a threat that doesn’t really exist. So the majority of time we spend in a state of stress is the result of our imagination, our misinterpretation of the world around us. So, how often should we experience the stress response? The answer is a startling 0.1% of our lives, and to be honest, that’s a very generous estimation. Realistically, it should probably be 0.001%. But let’s not worry about that, instead let’s look at how we come to this conclusion.

Think about this for a moment. How many times per day do you face a life-threatening situation? Unless you work in the emergency services or are actively fighting in a war zone, the answer is probably 0. So let’s change the question to, how many times in the last month can you remember facing a life-threatening situation? Let’s be generous with our estimations and say once. Maybe you were nearly knocked off your bike on the way to work. So the next question is how long did that life-threatening situation last. Taking the bike example, we’ll say 10 seconds. So about 10 seconds of your life, per month, is spent facing life-threatening situations. That’s 2 minutes per year, and if the average person lives for 74 years, that adds up to 2 hours 28 minutes per lifetime.

At this point you’ve probably begun to see the disparity between the time we spend experiencing the stress response and the actual amount of time we should be experiencing it. The difference is mind-boggling. So the question must be asked: Why do we spend so much time unnecessarily experiencing the stress response? Well, in short, it all boils down to mortality and how we’re conditioned to relate everything we do back to our own survival.

CATALYST OF THE STRESS RESPONSE

Every living being on the planet is hard wired to survive. Even the amoeba, a single celled organism, when prodded by a sharp point, will move away from the source of discomfort. As humans, we come into this world preprogrammed with this overwhelming urge to survive. This is an instinct that has been etched into our neural circuitry since we first set foot on the Earth.

The stress response is initiated every time we perceive a threat to our survival. So anything that could cause us to die is regarded as a threat. What’s interesting about this is how we label things as threatening. Our brains are amazingly irrational when it comes to threats to our survival. For instance, we’ll go into survival mode if we get knocked off our bike by a car. That’s a pretty good, rational reason. But why do we go into survival mode when our boss shouts at us? Think of it like this. You make a mistake in work, your boss shouts at you, so immediately the thought of being fired comes to mind. This links to another thought that says if I get fired, I won’t be able to support my self or my family. That leads to a new thought where we think if I can’t support my self or my family, we won’t have a place to live, we won’t have any food to eat and we’ll die. Although this is irrational, it’s the way our brain makes connections, which is what allows us to label things as important or not in our lives. So most of us see having a job as important.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what happens to the body and mind when the stress response is initiated.

AFTERMATH OF THE STRESS RESPONSE

When the stress response is triggered, whether it’s by an imaginary snake, a close encounter with death while riding our bike, or from our boss shouting at us, the same physiological responses are set in motion every time. Those responses are as follows:

  • The brain releases cortisol which stimulates the adrenal glands
  • The adrenal glands release adrenalin
  • Adrenalin widens the airways to help oxygenate the blood stream
  • The heart rate and blood pressure rise
  • Muscles become engorged with oxygenated blood redirected from the internal organs (increasing our strength)
  • Blood flow increases in the emotional centres of the brain and decreases in the frontal lobes (prompting us to respond without thinking)

Although all of these changes in our body and mind make us faster, stronger and more sensitive to our surroundings, which are all excellent aids to our survival when we’re in real danger of dying, they’re not so good for us when there isn’t any real threat to our life.

Over time, the stress response becomes a chronic disease-generating problem. Eventually it wears down our internal organs, suppresses our immune system, and basically makes us stupid by shutting down the rational centres of our brain.

Apart from making us generally unwell and unable to function properly, stress also hampers our ability to cope with even the smallest challenges in life. For the modern warrior, this is a serious problem. If a warrior is unable to remain calm and think clearly, his/her ability to respond to demanding situations is severely disrupted. It’s moments like this that can cost a warrior his/her life. So how do we deal with such moments? We breathe.

LEARN TO BREATHE

Ok, so we don’t have to learn how to breathe, obviously. We’re already doing that. But we do need to learn to consciously breathe in a specific way. By slowing our breathing rate and making it more uniform and steady, we can quickly reverse the negative effects of the stress response. Breathing in this way acts as a type of switch, turning on the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system and bringing the body and mind back to a calm and balanced state of being.

The rhythm we should aim to use is a ratio of 4:4 inhalation to exhalation. You can do this by slowly counting to four as you inhale, and again as you exhale. If you’re out for a walk and you realise you’re stressing out about something, you can count your foot-steps. Once you try this for a few days, switching on your parasympathetic nervous system becomes second nature and the world becomes a brighter easier place to live in.

There are many other breathing techniques, some of which I’ll explore in the future, but until then, give this one a go.

For another interesting blog post on breathing as a performance enhancer, have a look here.

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