May 30, 2011

Trying To Breathe When All I Want To Do Is Scream.

Three months ago my mom took her last breath. Her loss still takes my breath away.

Since then my dad has fallen twice resulting in four broken bones. The lion’s share of caring for him has fallen to my younger sister. It’s been one crisis after another in her life this year and she often tells me she feels like she can’t even breathe.

On our most recent call to discuss my dad’s health issues, I reminded her she had to take care of herself.

“Great f***ing idea. Maybe I’ll just take the night off and the kids can fend for themselves and dad can sit there alone and in pain and oh hey, I might as well just quit my job because I’m never there anymore anyway.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 44% of middle-aged, full-time working women are sandwiched between caring for two different generations.  How do we find the time to take care of ourselves when we are stuck between the needs of our children and the needs of our parents?

You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour. — Old Zen Adage

In “A Life Worth Breathing”, the latest Twitter Yoga Book Club pick, Max Strom explains how repressed emotional pain stays in our bodies creating an increase in the stress hormone cortisol which can lead to a variety of physical diseases.

As a yoga teacher I know the benefits of a regular meditation practice. Even though my personal daily meditation practice is less like three times per week, I still get the benefits of decreased stress and increased alertness.  I’ve learned that even a little meditation is a good thing.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Meditation is useful, but is it practical when in the throes of a crisis? When my sister doesn’t have time to catch her breath, how do I tell her to take the time to just sit and breathe?

Strom says that when conscious breathing is practiced, “the nervous system is calmed, diminishing stress, lowering one’s blood pressure and heart rate, and thereby improving sleep and maintaining a more-enhanced mental state while awake.”

The bodies sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for our fight or flight response, is necessary for life-threatening emergencies. But contemporary culture has created a place where our bodies are always on a sense of heightened alert.

Strom explains an out of whack sympathetic nervous system can result in chronic suppression of the immune system leading to everything from frequent colds to digestive issues to more dangerous diseases.

My sister is experiencing a list of health issues right now that we both know are stress induced.  She’s hurting, I’m too far away to help her physically and we both feel helpless watching my dad grieve.

I have yoga, meditation and distance from the situation to calm me. She is so far in the middle of it she can’t see a way out.

In his recent TED talk, Strom says that most people are breathing on autopilot. We are breathing just enough to survive but not actually live.

To breathe here now helps us to be here now. Max Strom “A Life Worth Breathing”

Strom recommends a 10-minute daily practice of Ujjayi breathing – or what he calls Ocean Breath.

  • Sit or stand with the spine straight
  • Relax the shoulder blades downward
  • Broaden the chest and remember to breathe into the sides of your ribs
  • Make the sound of fogging the mirror with your breath.

Strom initially teaches Ocean Breathing with the mouth open so people can improve their technique and better hear the quality of the breath. Once the mouth open technique is mastered he recommends they move on to the traditional mouth closed breathing practice.

By focusing on a conscious breathing practice, A Life Worth Breathing teaches us how to move through the Three Pillars of Transformation.

  1. Heal the body
  2. Calm the mind
  3. Heal your heart, your emotions

The transformation begins with the breath, focuses with the breath and ends with the breath.

I’m not sure it’s even possible to see the transformational possibilities when you are seeped in the depths of a seemingly endless series of life crises. But they are there waiting to be discovered.

If only we first take a moment, be still and breathe.

All wisdom resides within; you only need to breathe deeply and listen. — Max Strom “A Life Worth Breathing”

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