Breath! The breath is the foundation of our lives. It is the foundation of yoga. It is our greatest teacher. When we learn to understand our breath, it can tell us that we are stressed or that we are calm. It can tell us whether the air is thick or thin or whether it is cold and dry or humid and warm. Ask any person who has had an asthma attack, and they will tell you that the breath is a scary thing to lose.
And yet, with its abundant importance, how many of us actually pay attention to the breath? How many of us stop and recognize that we breath in and out thousands of times per day? How many of us recognize when we are holding our breaths?
Were you holding it while reading those sentences?
Yes, the breath happens automatically (at least when all systems in the body are functioning, it happens automatically). You cannot die simply by holding your breath because as soon as you pass out, the breath will come automatically. This is because the body simply cannot survive without oxygen. My non-scientific search of the internet reveals that the brain starts to lose brain cells after 3 minutes without oxygen, and brain death occurs somewhere between 6 and 10 minutes without oxygen.
For something so important to our being, you would think we would spend more time thinking about it, right? Certainly, we have covered this territory on this blog before – once about just stopping to take a breath, once as a lesson on the koshas, and once about overcoming pain (and a few more less-specific times). Today, however, let us focus on the exhale. Let us focus on a specific type of exhale – the sigh, the deep sigh.
Have you ever heard someone sigh? Have they done it in the middle of a conversation? What is your reaction? Do you think you have bored the person? I have noticed this many times, but one person used to do it more than anyone I know – my grandfather. I used to think I was boring him, but then I started doing yoga. He lived almost completely healthily until he was 89 years old. Maybe he knew something the rest of us were missing.
Yoga classes often start with the breath. Sometimes teachers instruct everyone to sigh together - a collective exhale. The result is almost humorous. The teacher will say, “inhale deeply, then audibly sigh and exhale.” I know my hearing is not great, but the result is sometimes almost eery silence. I notice it even more when I am teaching (because as a student, I am usually sighing too loudly to hear the others not sigh). Sometimes by the third repetition, after hearing the teacher’s sigh 2 times, the students join in, and sighs permeate the room. It is quite a sound, and energy, to behold.
Why are we so afraid to make our breath heard? Are we afraid to let go? Are we afraid that a sigh is a sign that we are overwhelmed? Are we afraid to share that with others?
Yes, the breath can teach us a lot. When it is constricted and short, we are often stressed and overwhelmed. Thus, we need to release that constriction and make space for the breath to flow more fully. What better way than a deep, audible sigh? Although it has a bad connotation to many of us, deep sighing is one of the easiest, quickest, and healthiest ways to overcome moments of exasperation. That is why people do it in those moments. The breath is reminding us that we are stressed and need to let go.
So why not do it purposefully? Take a moment – right now – and take a deep inhale. Then exhale deeply and let out a big sigh. If you are worried about the people around you, you can close the door or invite them along. I think it is time for us to stop fearing the sigh and embrace it. We can use it to our advantage, and as we open up to the possibility of the sigh, we can open up our lungs to breathe more deeply and fully and find ways to let go of some of the tension that has been building in our systems for years.
Do you enjoy sighing? Are you willing to do it in public? Do you feel better once you can let that tension release?
© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved