Friday, February 12, 2010

Breathing In a Large Body

Some of my students are hoping to lose weight when they begin taking yoga classes. Many of my students are hoping to feel better, and some of my students are taking a courageous step into their own bodies after many hurtful experiences, from medical issues and negative self image.

To stay alive one must breathe no matter how out of shape, or large, one's body. To maintain health in one's joints, one must lubricate them with a range of movements, strengthen them with muscular flexibility, and nurture their structural integration. To move in the world one must find ways to accept the body one lives in, and to honor its fundamental needs. All of this is approachable through a yoga practice in ways that are safe, progressively responsive to changing conditions, and available truly anywhere. I like to say that anyone breathing can be doing yoga.

Yoga does not require that you believe in a religion, nor pay a gym membership. Yoga does not hold you to a competitive arrangement where you count how many times you can push what level of weight. Your yoga asks only that you be truly present, open yourself to the possibilities of your own breath, and observe with curiosity that which actually happens in the moment you are in! It sounds so simplistic, but can be totally engaging, an adventure beyond imagining, and transformational in its effects.

Any seat can be your yoga seat. Allow your attention to find your breath. Where do you feel it? In your throat? In your ribs? Can you soften your belly and allow the breath to begin deep in your belly, spreading your ribs wider under your skin, feeling your ribs spread and ease, noticing your collarbones rise and fall? It makes no difference how large your body is, you can find your breath within it. This attention will help to deepen the breath, flooding your cells with the oxygen they all require to be healthy.

Next begin to allow movement in the breath. Perhaps just turning your palms up on the inhale and down on the exhale. This may move to the elbows, and then to the shoulders themselves, extending the arm, palm up on the inhale as far as your pain free range of motion, and floating them down, palm down on the exhale. Explore! Try spreading your arms outward, or up, perhaps make circles with your elbows! While you are breathing, you are at peace. Your shoulders are moving, your neck can release. Your body is gaining flexibility, gaining access to its own grace, gaining fresh oxygen in the inhale and eliminating waste in the exhale. The expansion of your ribs, the movement of the intercostal muscles of the ribcage may even feel achy in a day or so -- from the unusual exercise. But gradually your practice will feel more and more natural.

As you sit, you might quietly put both hands on one knee and allow your ribs to begin a gentle rotation to that side, hips settled and balanced below you. Inhale to center and exhale your hands onto the other knee. Settle there. This simple rotation will go deeper and deeper, allowing you to reinvent the way your spine rises, the way your deep stomach muscles flex and contract. You are gently massaging your internal organs with your twisting motion. You can draw your attention to the way your ribs wrap around you, making yourself more aware of your 3-dimensional self, feeling your side ribs moving around the front body, the way the ribs on the other side begin to rotate towards the back body. Your arms may move beyond the knee to hook the back arm on the back of the chair. You can try breathing the body open, and twist. Open and twist. Perhaps you will feel like lifting one arm as you open and lower it as you twist, increasing strength and flexibility in your shoulders, your transverse muscles and general core muscles.

You can explore your hip joints by slowly moving your knees from side to side while keeping your feet centered under your knees. It might feel good to have a pillow behind your back so that you can sit with your spine erect, not leaning back on the back of a chair. Imagine drawing your inner abdominal muscles up and in as though moving your belly button towards your spine, while letting your tailbone gradually relax towards the earth under you. You might lift and lower one foot and then the other, as though walking in place in your chair, and make small circles with your ankles while holding one leg up even a few inches. See if you can find a sense of rising and falling energy in the breath as you do these movements, opening and shifting your hip joints, strengthening your legs and abdominal muscles, making space in your spine. And do relax your neck! You don't need all that muscular effort in your neck in order to move your hip!

All this can happen in a few minutes any time as you sit at a computer, a desk, a table, or on cushions on a mat. In her introduction to The Breathing Book Donna Farhi writes, "Breathing fully is not a matter of adding anything, of acquiring some new technique, or of striving to improve oneself. Discovering the naturalness of our breaths has to do with uncovering or removing the obstacles that we have constructed to the breath, both consciously and unconsciously."

You are nurturing your inner self the entire time that your attention is focused on this inhale and this exhale. You are strengthening the core of your physical health, and expanding your potential in every moment. There is a natural feeling of well being that results from oxygenating the body, a genuine feeling of self respect evolves from tending to the health of your major joints, and deep peace arises from knowing that you already have within you the tools to live a healthy life.

You might look for yoga classes with names like "Nice & Easy," "Gentle," "Beginning Yoga," "Chair Yoga" or "Yoga for Every Body." Your yoga practice can begin with your next breath.

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