End-of-Year Challenge: Time to Unwind

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The final challenge in 2016 is about taking time for yourself. To many of us, taking time to unwind is last on the list: after work, children, the house, friends, … everything else seems more urgent than replenishing our own energy reserves. You may have come across the analogy with the airplane instructions to put your own oxygen mask on first. In your case, what does your true “oxygen” consist of? What deeply energises and relaxes you?

My “oxygen” is yoga, mindful walking and breath awareness. It is something I need to go back to again and again. If I practise yoga mindfully, it relaxes and energises at the same time. A yoga practice does not have to be complicated or strenuous. In fact, the simpler and more effortless, the more advanced and releasing yoga can be. Key, however, is the attention. Our attention can help us practise in an intelligent way, so that we do not impose even more tensions on our body. Today, for this last blog of the year, I am sharing a breathing exercise that is meant to release the diaphragm and deeply held physical and emotional tensions.

Abdominal Breathing to release the diaphragm

A healthy diaphragm is essential for our vitality and emotional wellbeing. This muscle is connected and very responsive to the surrounding muscles and the nervous system. The diaphragm is adversely affected by stress, fear and negativity, by bad posture and muscular tensions. Conversely, simply paying attention to relaxed abdominal breathing can release the diaphragm, release stress and increase our vitality.

The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle between the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity. Its rhythmical contraction and relaxation allows us to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Other chest muscles can help and even take over but if the diaphragm is not working well, our overall health is undermined.

The diaphragm contracts and descends to create a vacuum in the lungs so that air is sucked in. Its descent directly and indirectly massages the abdominal organs, which promotes blood and lymph flow and the absorption of nutrients. As the exhalation begins, the diaphragm relaxes upward and air is expelled from the lungs.

The diaphragm tightens as a result of chronic stress, fear and other negative emotions as well as muscular tensions and bad posture. Its movement is also limited when the abdominal muscles are chronically tight, as the ‘held’ abdominal wall prevents the diaphragm from contracting fully. A chronically tight abdomen is not only weak, but it also blocks the beneficial massage of the abdominal organs. My video series about abdominal strengthening is coming out soon and will show how to work and relax the abs, and will also include relaxing breathing techniques.

When the diaphragm is tight and held, the rib and chest muscles take over and the resulting thoracic breathing is shallow. This reduces the amount of oxygen available to our cells, requires higher breath and heart rates, more muscular effort and thus more energy. This kind of shallow, thoracic breathing is not only draining for our system but also increases anxiety and irritability.

One can see how important it is to take the time to do easy, abdominal breathing: it has the power to turn on the relaxation response and to start healing tensions and holding patterns. Stress itself is not the problem – we need short-term stress to function in certain situations – but the problem arises when we do not take the time to unwind, and stress becomes chronic and damaging to the body.

Method; practise 10 minutes a day

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-Make sure you are comfortable and warm, lying on a semi-hard surface such as a yoga mat or carpet. Use a cushion under your head if that is more comfortable and a blanket to keep warm.
-The best position to release the diaphragm – and you may have guessed it, the back muscles too – is lying on the back with the legs bent or supported on a bolster.
-Breathe in and out through the nose if possible.
-Observe your breathing without interfering. Follow the speed of your breathing and notice it slow down naturally.
-Focus on the movement of your abdomen. Feel the expansion of your abdomen outward when you inhale. Don’t “do” this movement, just allow it to happen. When you exhale the abdomen relaxes down.
-If you find yourself doing the reverse (breathing in and expanding the chest), place your hands on your abdomen and imagine a balloon underneath your hands: When you inhale you inflate the balloon, when you exhale the balloon empties.
-This is simple natural breathing, paying attention without “doing” anything. You may find that your back is relaxing, as well as the hips, the legs, the shoulders, the neck. Every time you breathe out, feel how a little bit more tension is leaving the body.

After about 10 minutes, come out of the position slowly, first rolling over to one side and staying there a minute. Then push yourself up with the strength of your arms.

Finally, a note on taking the time:
Oxygen is essential for our life force. If we look at our breathing mechanism, there is the inhalation, the taking of air through muscular contraction, and the exhalation, which is the release of muscular effort. Likewise, if we want to “oxygenate” our energy, some effort is required. The effort is not in the exercise itself, but in the discipline of actually doing it. It is the effort to take the time, to keep the discipline, to put “me-time” in the diary. Only then can we truly feel good and give back.

Happy 2017!
Best wishes for a year filled with good health and vitality!

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