I'd like to share my story about yoga's most fundamental aspect: breathing. Recovering from a back injury sustained during a "frisbee accident" on the Fourth of July (but I made the catch!), there was so much that I couldn't do. Weeks after the injury, I could still go into spasm without warning, and most stretching and yoga poses were beyond me.
Lying in bed one morning, I decided to just breathe as deeply as I could, to see if that would help my back muscles loosen their death-grip on my life. I inhaled deeply through my nose, allowing my belly to "fill up" first, and then letting the remainder of the inhalation move up into a full expansion of my chest. Then I exhaled completely, letting the air out in "one fell swoop."
What I discovered was that my body immediately responded to this "letting go" of my breath. I followed the first breath with another deep, full breath, and I began to feel random tiny little knots in various parts of my body -- arms, back, calves -- release. I realized that I had switched my body into relaxation response, the opposite of fight-or-flight mode. I also instinctively realized that relaxation response was the body's healing mode.
More than the physical relaxation, I also had the realization that oxygen itself is our body's most basic food. Of course we drink water and eat food to survive, but oxygen is even more elemental. We cannot be deprived of it even for more than a few moments without the direst of effects. Yet, I found myself thinking, most of us drink very shallowly from the immense store of oxygen all around us. I envisioned an "oxygen patch" like a berry patch, all around us, and just waiting for us to "eat" our fill.
The longer I lay there, breathing in great "bunches" of oxygen, the better I felt -- more relaxed and more filled, literally, with life. I also realized that I had been breathing without distraction for a long period of time -- in a sense, meditating more successfully than I ever had in my life, all without any explicit intention of doing so. I was just trying to breathe deeply. Then I thought: Is this what the wise, spiritual teachers of the world are trying to teach us -- just breathe? Of course, the word "spirit" means breath. Maybe the great spiritual teachers are our "breath" teachers -- the ones who show what happens when you center your life not in the shallow breathing of fight-or-flight mode, but in the healing mode of deep, full, oxygen-rich breaths.
Yes, I kept going to the chiropractor, and yes, I tried to be sensible in my bodily movements, but I really do date my recovery from that moment -- when I learned how to push my body's healing button. I am now almost fully recovered, but am keeping my "breathing exercises" as part of my daily routine that I can call upon whenever I realize I'm in a stress mode, but don't really need to be.
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