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Why Conscious Breathing Does it For Me


7 Minute Read

You realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind

( Eckhart Tolle Practising the Power of Now)

Conscious breathing and meditation/mindfulness are becoming more popular, and even more so now, as we look for ways to manage challenges of isolation and lack of connection during lockdowns.

I have been practising conscious breathing for over 30 years, first as part of my yoga practice and then as a yoga teacher. Conscious breathing allows me to feel more present, more grounded. I feel more connected to myself and to others. It also gives me a rush of energy which I channel into my writing and other creative projects. It helps me to focus, set goals and achieve what I want. Feeling better about myself, I then feel more confident in what I’m doing and stronger in my convictions about what matters to me. At the same time, conscious breathing brings gentleness.

In my first yoga training, I meditated at 5am and 9pm every day and felt a strong sense of peace. Life on an ashram lends itself to this pure practice. Back in London, I found it hard to maintain a regular practice, as do many of us, for lots of different reasons – boredom, my to-do list, that pointless anxiety for the future or the past. I needed to rediscover that peace within my busy life of commuting, teaching in sometimes challenging situations, such as prisons as well as making time for my writing, theatre-making and yoga. I needed a stress release and at the same time, the energy and confidence to keep going with all these things. Because traditional meditation is about just sitting and watching the mind, it felt like too much of a contrast to the busyness of my life, whereas in conscious breathing, there is a focus – something to do and to think about so it works better for me. It enables me to deal with some of the blocks that I put in my way and helps me to find a more regular practice.  

Conscious breathing is a series of exercises that teaches us different ways to manipulate the breath. There is a simplicity in their execution, and yet complexity in the science in which they are grounded. For each exercise, we focus on the inhale, the exhale or the retention of the breath, and sometimes all three. We increase oxygen or prana to our brain and this makes us feel good. As we become more conscious of the breath, we become more conscious of ourselves, more present, more aware and we’re all trying to be more present in life. Breathing consciously connects us to our conscience! Some say that this is our soul or the Divine and that connecting with the Divine is the key goal of pranayama.

I first experienced conscious breathing in Sivananda yoga practice as pranayama: The vital force. Prana is life, vitality, energy or strength. Ayama means length, expansion or restraint’ (Swami Sivananda)

 

And BKS Iyengar writes that pranayama teaches us to ‘Regulate the breathing, and thereby control the mind. . . It cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves’ (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)

As a theatre practitioner, my yoga practice was already feeding into my rehearsal room; in voice classes, as we worked on the breath; also in physical theatre classes where I was inspired by Grotowski who had used yoga as part of his practice. We all learn from each other. When I was made redundant from the Royal Court Theatre, I was hugely disappointed but, finding myself with an unexpected gap in my career, I set off to Sivananda HQ to do the teacher training and began the journey that brought me to teaching, first yoga and then conscious breathing.

I continued the Sivananda style of including some conscious breathing at the start of class in my yoga teaching. Sivananda teachings say that we must not overdo the pranayama, we need to keep a balance. I understood this but I still felt we could do more with it. I wondered if, instead of being the introduction to the class, the conscious breathing could become, as it were, the main event.

And so in 2019, I completed the first-ever training of Altered States: The Breath. The course was inspired by both Hatha and Kundalini yoga; by teachings around addictions plus it refers to breath experts such as Wim Hof. I learnt how to manipulate the breath to:

1 Change how I feel.

2 Increase the flow of ‘positive’ hormones in the body leaving me feeling uplifted, with a sense of calm and well being.

3 Decrease ‘negative’ hormones, leaving me feeling calmer and less likely to react when stressed.

4 Increase breath capacity.

How amazing to be able to create stillness and calm by increasing dopamine; exhilaration by increasing endorphins and positive feelings of well being by increasing Serotonin; this in turn improves digestion and sleep and we enter a more positive cycle.

At the same time, we decrease adrenaline and cortisol that we only need in high levels when we’re in real danger, of say, being eaten by a lion whilst out hunting!  Globally there is a huge increase in stress levels. This sometimes leads to greater reliance on addictive substances and poor mental health which can add to the sense of fear, so our bodies produce more adrenaline and we are in a negative cycle. By slowing down the breath we shift from this fight/flight mode.

To begin we release the vagus nerve, the biggest nerve in the body, which runs from the brain stem through to the guts. This resets the nervous system, it ‘powers up’ the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the hormonal flow to shift. The exercises build breath capacity which improves the health of the lungs, heart and  digestion. Reducing stress in the body has the same effect, so there are clear physical benefits as well as positive feelings of well being.

Some of the exercises are simple versions of what we all do naturally. I do one with my mum who has dementia. Others require greater concentration – and it is this focus that is freeing from my overthinking, chattering mind.

Crucially, we pause after each exercise as, to quote Grotowski, ‘It is what happens in between the exercises that counts. . .’ This is the stillness and focus on the present moment and we ask ourselves ‘How am I feeling now?’, having asked it at the top of the class. Usually, there is a noticeable shift. At the end of the class we lie in silent relaxation, then again we observe how we are feeling in our bodies and minds. I love how my yoga feeds into my theatre work and vice versa. I am constantly developing my practice and currently feeding in some movement from my theatre practice. This keeps it fresh and brings a sense of playfulness and creativity.

One of the best things about conscious breathing is its accessibility. I can do it literally anywhere: in bed the moment I wake or the last thing before sleep; whilst walking in nature or at my desk, in my garden or park. I hope to be able to do it again on a beach somewhere. I love how I can check in with myself and decide what I need, which techniques will help me today; and I love how naturally it comes. After all it is an extension of what we do from the moment we arrive on this earth, to the moment we depart – breath.

Laura is offering a free taster 40 min session plus a Q&A on April 29th at 8am on Zoom.

You can contact Laura on lauramccluskey@btinternet.com for further information and to sign up.

Neha Misra Tries Out Her First Workshop – Naked Dating!


1 Minute Read

I have a confession to make, until last weekend I was a virgin in the realm of workshops. Despite being an intuitive life coach and healer, the word ‘workshop’ and the thought of all that navel-gazing with a load of strangers has always made me want to run for the hills. Maybe because I am such a rebel and that it seemed almost ‘de rigueur’ that by a certain age, 53 in my case, with a certain lifestyle, one ought to have attended some kind of self-development workshop/course/retreat.

However, I came at Jan Day’s workshop ‘Meeting without Masks’ in a back to front way that sidestepped all my knee-jerk reactions. I went to a talk she gave in Portobello Road’s Electric House one rainy night in February and was immediately struck by Jan’s gentle energy and the powerful content of her conversation. She discussed intimacy in a way I had not heard spoken about before – with really intelligent observations around consent and about when ‘yes’ truly means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ truly means ‘no’.

I was totally hooked in and wanted to know more, because in the months post the beginning of the ‘Me Too’ movement, I was predominantly working with clients wanting to heal and release their sexual traumas. I liked the way Jan talked about how critical it was to explore one’s own boundaries first, and how vital boundaries are in a trusting relationship.

Of course on the actual day, I wasn’t so keen to go. We were having a rare moment of stunning sunshine after the Beast from the East plus it a was the London Marathon and it felt like the entire world had stepped onto my tube platform, it was worse than any rush hour scrum. Consequently, I was a bewildered hot mess when I arrive a few minutes late.

However, Jan and Frieder, (her husband and co-workshop host) couldn’t have put me more at ease with no judgement. In fact, the moment I walked into the room, I felt the loving playful way in which they were holding the space for everyone. Participants were already sitting down in a circle and the only place left was between Frieder and rather fortuitously the best looking man in the room.

The icebreaker in the first exercise was designed to loosen us up and inspire playfulness was actually my idea of hell, plus it didn’t help that Mr Good Looking was my partner. I was even more flustered. Thankfully, he seemed to find it equally awkward and I sensed a mutual rebellious spirit against anything contrived to force merriment. He had a droll deadpan humour and I couldn’t stop giggling. The group was gender-balanced with ages ranging from mid-20s to early 70s. As we moved onto the next exercise, I could see how cleverly they were designed to subtly yet skilfully lead us into exploring true listening and being present to our partner. I know from my marriage of 18 years that this is an area that gets woefully neglected in long relationships.

Meetings Without Masks or Naked Dating (in other words allowing you to remove your social masks) is not created for participants to get to know one particular person, but more to look at one’s own interactions and to get us accustomed to interacting in more heartfelt ways. As I worked with different partners, it struck me just how many men hadn’t considered what kind of relationship they really wanted. I actually started to really appreciate and respect the courage it took for everyone in the room to articulate this. It wasn’t easy to pull masks off that had built up over the years of self-protection. True intimacy requires vulnerability and that requires courage and most of the people I worked with seemed utterly frozen in their fears of rejection.

As the morning continued, I felt that shifts occurring. That maybe some of those shackles were loosening. Jan and Frieder were pushing us gently yet firmly to move out of our comfort zones. We had been asked to write notes of appreciation about everyone we encountered which would be put into envelopes with our names on it to take home. At one point Frieder even came up to and asked if I had written a note to Mr Good Looking and I recoiled in fear at the mere thought of it. I told him if I ever found a man attractive, it actually made me want to run away or even leave the room. Then to my extreme surprise, he asked me if I had been abused a lot by men, which I had. Having done decades of healing on myself, I was shocked to realise there is so much residual trauma left which still impacts the way I behave in a relationship. This workshop shone a torch into all my dark crevices making me see right into those areas that had yet to be healed.

In another exercise, we had a fabulous opportunity to start an honest dialogue with the opposite sex, which is so rare and precious. We were divided into sexes and invited to think about three questions. Firstly, we were asked to think about one thing that we appreciated about the opposite sex, then to consider one aspect that aggravated us, and finally to ponder a question that had always intrigued us about them.

I found myself in front of Mr Good Looking again and despite my lack of comfort, I forced myself to look into his eyes and tried not to get flustered as more masks came off. His answers were surprising and yet confirmed what I had already realised, we are all scared of getting rejected, and we all just wanted to be accepted, heard and loved. The vulnerability of showing these feelings of fear and discomfort – is real heartfelt intimacy.

By lunchtime, I had a lot of insights to mull over. For a small extra amount of money, there was a delicious vegan and gluten-free buffet.

The kindness and nurturing energy emanated by Jan and Frieder throughout the workshop, reminded me of my doula (trained birthing assistant) when I gave birth. They know that this isn’t an easy process and they hold the space in a strong, loving and supportive way so that participants can push through the layers of social masks to give birth to themselves safely if they wish.

It felt as if time was slowing down as we dived deeply into examining our responses to exercises, which encouraged us to practice vulnerability and openness. We went from less talking to more experiential work. In a very simple exercise where we could explore consent, we walked towards a partner after they had indicated their consent with an open or closed arm gesture. This became a moving, revelatory and extremely powerful experience for me because as someone who was brought up with the ‘disease to please’ simply taking the time to check in with myself that I was okay with moving forward, was an alien concept.

I had to consciously stop myself going on doing what I thought my partner wanted. Although a total stranger, my partner displayed extraordinary kindness by waiting patiently and holding the space in a non-threatening manner. I felt safe so I eventually was ready to move forward. It was the first time in my life that I felt that kind of patience from a man.

Having said that, when I was about three feet away from him, I felt the energy between us dramatically change. So much so that I had to go backwards in a knee-jerk reaction and take a moment before I stepped once again into that challengingly intimate space. It was almost too much for me and even though we hadn’t exchanged a word yet I knew he could feel it too. When I caught his eye, we both burst out laughing with the surprise and intimacy of it all.

The second version of this exercise became even more interesting as it required us to look at what was leading us to make the decision to move forwards or backwards. Was it our head or our sexual desire? Jan knows this is an enormous challenge for most of us and I loved the way she gently introduced it – especially to the men – as a way of unapologetically standing in and embracing one’s own sexuality.

As the day ended, we left holding our envelopes with the notes of appreciation and there was no doubt many masks had been removed. I felt tired but lighter. As I left, Mr Good Looking asked me how I had found it? The energy between us felt different. We had both just done the workshop and it felt as if there was another quality to the communication. I felt as if my words were truly being listened to, as if my words were falling into a deep pile that softly held it.

The truth is that I felt a bit discombobulated after the workshop. I was shocked that at 53 and after an 18-year marriage, I didn’t know how to respond to an attractive man. My traditional response had been to run away. Yet now I could look Mr GL in the eye without needing to control the situation. I could be instead present to the connection we were making.

Therein lies the beauty of this day course. Its tools are so accessible and immediate. Perhaps we were still in the bubble of the workshop, however, I think there was a difference to the quality of our communication as we walked and talked and got to know each other better in the beautiful back streets of Belgravia bathed in spring sunshine.

Later that night, I read the notes of appreciation we had been encouraged to write. Mine were touching and sweet. They reminded me of the courage that it takes to be vulnerable. True intimacy is so scary for so many of us, especially for those who have never had it. The last note I opened was from Mr GL, it said; ‘I loved your infectious joy, positivity, sense of mischief and curiosity – and your jewellery which was nearly as plentiful as mine.’

As for what happened next with Mr GL, well that’s a story for another time…

The next Meetings Without Masks is on June 17th in Belgravia. More info on meetingswithoutmasks.com or janday.com

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