I have sleep apnea. Moderate sleep apnea to be exact, where I stop breathing during sleep about 6 times an hour on average. At least that was the frequency of my small deaths and snorting, choking resurrections at the time of diagnosis in 2002 when I inarguably spent the worst hours of my nocturnal life in a sleep lab.
120 electrodes, attached mostly to my skull and chest, carved deep painful canyons into the sides of my head as I tossed and turned under a stiff, antiseptic bedspread. The electrodes provided impulses of my after hours biochemical and physiological life which translated into scribblings on a graph, all while a video camera recorded my drooling fitfully sleeping self and a live feed camera projected my gasping thrashing beauty rest to a screen which was observed by nodding, bored coffee swilling backshift lab techs.
It was, excuse the phrase, a nightmare.
When I was later informed of my night time apneic alter ego, I was advised to undergo laser surgery. When I was later informed of my night time apneic alter ego, I was advised to purchase and use a CPAP machine. Oh, yes….the advice was directly related to that which made the advising physician the most money: one was my referring specialist and the other was the owner of the sleep lab. Of course. So, I did neither. Of course (do you know me??)
Instead, I started to attend to my breath with greater awareness. There were many moments when I held my breath. On occasions when I was afraid, anxious, lost in thought, underwater or in the midst of exertion, I was prone to holding my breath. Instead of having my breath work for me I was frequently, mindlessly, allowing it to work against me.
Establishing a yoga practice was a helpful way to begin a breathwork practice as was lifting weights, pilates, biking, sculling and running. In the midst of any of these activities breath awareness is a key to success. Rhythmic breathing in particular patterns, like my two pace inhale three pace exhale on short runs or the pressurized exhale of a heavy kettlebell session, carry me through the work.
It wasn’t until I started a (regular) sitting practice, however, that I learned to carry my breath awareness into my everyday life — off the mat, off the cushion, off the bike. This created a fundamental shift in Being Mindful. Discovering that ordinary experiences present extraordinary opportunities to be fully present and awake was the epiphany which brought joy and vibrancy into each moment of my day.
This is beyond cool. Discovering that what we need most is fully within us, integral to our being, waiting to be noticed, appreciated and nurtured…
If you suffer fatigue, anxiety, dizziness, chronic illness, indigestion, sleep disorders, depression, negative thoughts, or irritability you might very well benefit from becoming breath aware.
You can perform breathing exercises to improve your breath. For example:
- Practice Breath Awareness – With no need to change your breath, simply observe it and take note of its qualities. Don’t try to influence your breath, simply follow the breath cycle with your observing mind. Is it deep or shallow, smooth or jagged, fast or slow? Sit in a comfortable postion with a tall supple posture. Follow the rhythm of your breath through inhalation and exhalation. Where does the inhalation end and the exhalation begin? Where does the exhalation end and the inhalation begin? Spend five minutes daily on this exercise.
- Attend to the Exhalation – Focus on the exhalation with the goal of becoming more aware of this part of your breath cycle. Place your hands on the sides of your rib cage and gently squeeze the breath out of your lungs as you exhale. Draw the bellybutton in toward the spine and up under the ribcage in order to expel all the air. Release the ribs on the inhale. Repeat for one minute.
- Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing, sometimes called Belly Breath – In a comfortable position on your back, place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your lower belly. As you inhale, allow the breath to fill your belly, floating your lower hand upward. The hand on your chest shouldn’t move. Exhale through pursed lips, feeling your hand draw down toward your spine. The hand on your chest still shouldn’t move.
When your focus is on your breath, allow other thoughts to float easily away. Stay present in your breath, release your past and future, acknowledge thoughts as they arise in your mind and return your attention, always, to your breath.
With regular practice you will find all manners of lightness, health, wisdom, clarity, and release in your breath.
Breathwork and mindfulness are a practice. Be kind and loving towards yourself as you explore the potential of your breath. The opportunities can bring you to a vibrant wakefulness, a shimmering compassion, a resonating truth.
Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? ~ Mary Oliver