Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Breathing Exercises - Step By Step


Many of my Kokikai Aikido students have asked me about breathing exercises, and I thought it would be helpful to have some simple instructions in a place that is easy to access.

These simple exercises increased my lung capacity by more than double within about a month, and as additional months went by, I could exhale continuously for 400% longer than when I began. If you're wondering what are the benefits of a breathing practice, (other than being able to exhale for a really long time!) here are three previous posts:

Please keep in mind that other Kokikai instructors may have additional, or different ideas about how to practice breathing. Additionally, Maruyama Sensei occasionally modifies his instructions about breathing practice. The practice I outline below represents my understanding. It has worked well for me and for others I have instructed.

Of course, it should go without saying that if your lungs are compromised, for example you have emphysema, COPD or asthma, you should seek a doctor's advice before trying any new practice.

Breathing Exercises, Step By Step

Find a time and place where you wont be disturbed. Sensei has also pointed out that you should sit in a place that has good air while practicing breathing. There's no need to drive out to the country, but try not to practice breathing in the midst of exhaust fumes either!

Breathing practice should be done regularly and consistently - every day if possible. Find a length of time for your practice that you can maintain. If you decide that's ten minutes, make it ten minutes, no more! More important than practicing for a long time at one sitting is to practice consistently.

1. Sit in a comfortable position that you can maintain for 10-15 minutes.

This may be a chair, or cross legged on cushions on the floor. Most people will find sitting on the floor without cushions to be a strain on the back and too hard on the seat. It may also strain the knees. If you sit cross legged, try ensuring that your knees fall equal to or lower than your hips. Use a couple of cushions if needed. This seems to be more comfortable for most people. If you prefer to sit seiza (on your knees, heels under buttocks), it also may increase your comfort to put a cushion or blanket between the calves and the upper thighs/hips.
It's also best if you are not leaning your back against the wall or chair back, but sometimes this is too tiring, especially at first.

2. Use a timer, or sit near a clock.

A timer helps you stay focused because then you don't worry about sneaking a peak. There are lots of apps available for smartphones, laptops and tablets - check out the Insight Timer, or the Zazen Meditation Timer.

3. Set the timer and start it. 

Close your eyes. Begin with two or three comfortable, deep breaths: just breathe in fully, and exhale fully and easily.

4. Breathe in deeply and fully, through the nose if possible.

5. Exhale as slowly as you can, through the mouth. 

While you are exhaling, open your mouth slightly, and make a " hhhhhee" sound as you exhale, as if you are whispering "heee." This sound is made by slightly constricting the muscles at the back of the throat. Extend the sound as long as possible. Try to make the sound as smooth as possible as you exhale. Try to be conscious of relaxing the shoulders, back, chest, throat and face. 

6. Continue breathing in deeply and fully, and exhaling as slowly and evenly as you can. 

It may help to silently and slowly count as you exhale.  Don't worry if the length of your inhalations and exhalations changes over the course of your practice session. They may be longer at first, then grow shorter, then maybe even longer again. Don't worry too much about day to day changes in your count. Just make sure to relax, try not to have a particular goal, stay comfortable.

7. When the timer goes off...

finish the breath you are on, take one more easy breath, and you're done!

If you have trouble, for example you suddenly become out of breath or experience anxiety, don't worry. You are in charge. Just relax, catch your breath, and try again.

In a future post I'll provide a FAQ on breathing exercises.

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