Extending Breath with Counting and Essential Oils
Welcome to the third lesson of the breathing course. Today, we’ll discuss using counting and essential oils to extend our breath.
How Our Nervous System Works
Extended breathing is a technique that can be used in high-stress situations to reiterate control over your sympathetic response. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing your body for action, particularly in situations threatening survival, and is also known as “fight or flight.” For example, if a man is running along a wilderness trail and a mountain lion jumps in front of him, his sympathetic nervous system will use energy to raise blood pressure and speed up his heartbeat. This rush of adrenaline will help him fight the potential danger or run away. Simultaneously, while energy is directed to this problem, it will be taken away from the digestive processes, which will slow down.
On the other hand, our parasympathetic system is slow and growth based. It releases chemicals to relax your muscles and slow your breathing and is often associated with digestion and absorption of nutrients, as well as strengthening our immune and reproductive systems.
A practice of deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system linked to stimulation of the vagus nerve. Running from the base of the brain to the abdomen, this nerve is responsible for lowering your heart rate.
How to Practice Extended Breathing
Did you know that we have potential to take one breath per minute?
On average, a person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute. According to The Yoga Book by Stephen Sturgess, studies have shown that animals with a slow breathing rate, such as snakes, crocodiles, elephants, and tortoises, have a long lifespan. On the other hand, animals with a fast breathing rate, such as birds, cats, dogs, and rabbits, live only for a few years.
Through practice, we can gradually slow down our breath rate. Slow breathing improves overall mental focus and concentration by increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
“Having established a firm steady posture, one then regulates the life-force (prana) by natural voluntary suspension of the breath after inhalation and exhalation—this is pranayama.” —Yoga Sutras 2:49
You can begin this extended retention breathing in a tall seated position like an easy sitting pose, also known as cross-legged. If this is uncomfortable, you can sit on a pillow, folded blanket, or yoga block. Allow your sitting bones to make contact with the ground. Roll your shoulders back and down while knitting your lower ribs in. Bring your chin to parallel with the earth as your knees descend.
You can choose to count each second of breath. If you are new to holding your breath, I recommend only using two counts per phase: Inhale through your nose 2-1, pause at the top 2-1, and slowly exhale through your nose 2-1, pausing again at the bottom 2-1.
You can repeat this pattern with two counts and eventually work your way up to six or even ten. Sometimes it helps to watch the second hand on the face of a clock. Repeat this cycle for five to ten minutes in one sitting and up to three times a day to gradually see improvement.
As a personal example, in 2016, I went away for a silent meditation weekend at Mountain Center. After sitting in a dark room of silence, I noticed that my mind was running wild with all the tasks I could be doing. I brought my concentration and awareness back to counting my breath. Sometimes on my way up to ten breaths, I would get distracted and start thinking about something else. However, after hours of this seated meditation, I was able to count to an astonishing 100 breaths with a calm demeanor.
One helpful aid for deeper breathing is the use of essential oils. Inhaling with essential oils gives our mind a “time out” from thinking, where our bodies can recover from stressful stimuli.
Depending on your area of concern, essential oils can be used to remedy a variety of issues:
• Cinnamon cassia is excellent for boosting energy.
• Eucalyptus clears up congested lungs and nasal passageways.
• Orange ignites pleasurable feelings and lemon feels clean.
• Finally, lavender aids with better sleep.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about restorative yoga and a cooling extension of your breath that will help you sleep.
To your continued success,
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