Breathing Away Depression

December 22, 2014    BY Rolf Sovik

Few of us are completely untouched by depression. And when our mood is upended, the loss of hope and confidence can be almost paralyzing. Work accumulates. We smile and interact in familiar ways, but are not really engaged. We avoid calling friends, withdraw from social settings. And as time passes we find ourselves increasingly cut off from the sources of energy that normally sustain us.

Few of us are completely untouched by depression. And when our mood is upended, the loss of hope and confidence can be almost paralyzing.

Fortunately, most of us have recovery strategies for times when moods turn sour and energy wanes. We listen to our favorite music and spend time reading, or drawing, or whatever refreshes us. Often there is someone we can talk to. We exercise, take walks, or pray. For some, medication may also be a necessary part of mending. All these things can help—and it is important to keep every option open.

The meditative practices of yoga offer a simple and nurturing technique that you can add to your repertoire—the practice of relaxed breath awareness. A powerful tool for preventing the onset of depressed moods in the first place, breath awareness restores energy during acute phases of depression, lightens your emotional load, and creates needed distance from gloomy thoughts. And it complements other healing strategies by providing an underpinning of relaxation and emotional stability. So when low moods threaten to take the joy from life, breath awareness provides a consistent and ever-available inner focus that will help you make the journey back to health.

Three Dimensions of Life

How can the awareness of breathing be so useful? The importance of breathing is accented in a story from the Chandogya Upanishad. There, the eyes, ears, mind, and breath are found arguing about their relative importance. The eyes and ears, representing the body, claim that they are the most indispensable for life. But in turn, the mind and the breath argue their own cases. To resolve the issue each agrees to vacate the body for one year, leaving the others to manage without it. At the end of four years, when each aspect of the self has returned, a winner will be declared. One by one the eyes, the ears, and the mind depart but even through blindness, loss of hearing, and a coma-like existence, life continues. Then the breath begins to leave. Suddenly, all the remaining functions are uprooted, as if a strong horse, hooves bound with ropes, was tearing its fetters from the ground. Awestruck, the body and mind beg the breath to return and humbly accept it as supreme.

Despite its profound significance, for the most part breathing is a background to other activities; its ceaseless flow remains on the periphery of awareness. And while it is convenient that we don’t have to constantly monitor the breath, this can have unintended consequences. Poor breathing habits undermine the breath’s effectiveness. Low energy levels, shortness of breath, anxiety, low moods, and poor concentration are just some of the resulting symptoms.

Despite its profound significance, for the most part breathing is a background to other activities.

In the story above, and in yoga in general, the act of breathing implies something more than just mechanically moving air in and out of the lungs. This is only the outermost aspect of a field of energy that brings the body/mind to life. The process of breathing sustains that field—carrying away wastes and drawing in fresh energy from the atmosphere around it. All the functions of body and mind perform their work with the assistance of this living energy. At its most visible, it produces physical movement and actuates the various physiological systems of the body. At more subtle levels it animates the functions of the mind.

You can come in touch with this energy quite easily. Simply close your eyes and ask yourself: on a scale of one to ten, what is your energy level now? How would you describe the quality of your energy? With a fair amount of confidence you’ll be able to estimate your energy level, and in the process, sense the quality of that energy in you. Since we often lose touch with these aspects of our self, the experiment you have just made can help you be more attentive to them—the first important step toward replenishing energy when it is depleted.

Energy and Breath

The system of energy within us is in constant flux. Racing to catch a bus requires an output of physical energy. Worrying and brooding drains energy at a more subtle level. Our breathing powerfully influences these shifting states and thus affects both body and mind. A deep, healthy breath is a resilient friend; when breathing becomes irregular or shallow there is cause for concern.

When there is a pause in the breath, for example, or even when the normal vitality of breathing simply declines, the mind and the nervous system become alert, watching to see what will happen next. As the pauses lengthen or as the breath becomes listless and shallow, our deep-seated instincts attempt to arouse the breath and get it moving again. We may find ourselves sighing, yawning, or turning to mouth breathing to quickly acquire air and replenish our energy. There may be other changes in the way we breathe as well. We may employ muscles for breathing that usually remain dormant, or we may shift our posture to help the breath flow more easily. All these relatively unconscious modifications of the breathing process are intended to reestablish a more normal state of energy within us.

The fact that we can modify our breathing consciously means that, with training, we can be much more effective in managing our energy than if we were to leave the process entirely to unconscious forces. We can deepen the breath, calm it and make it more regular, and even eliminate the pauses that so subtly disturb the nervous system. In other words, through our breathing we have access to the system of energy within us, and that access is available whenever we want to turn toward it.

The fact that we can modify our breathing consciously means that, with training, we can be much more effective in managing our energy.

When we are not feeling our best, we need a breathing strategy that is uncomplicated, one that gives us hope that through our own effort we can reduce our weariness or depression and replace it with new energy. Breath awareness is a good place to begin.

The Practice of Breath Awareness

Sit in your most comfortable chair for this breath awareness practice. Focus for a moment on your body. Feel the support of the chair, and let your body rest. Take a moment to become as comfortable as possible. Then close your eyes. Reflect for a moment that you live on the planet Earth, a planet surrounded by an atmosphere filled with air. Living beings share the atmosphere with one another, and it is high enough, broad enough, vast enough to support all these various lives. We live and breathe in a great sea of air and energy.

Now turn your awareness toward your breathing and further reflect that each breath is made up of an exhalation and an inhalation. During exhalation, the lungs are emptied and wastes are carried away. During inhalation, we draw air and energy from the sea of air around us and fill the lungs with it. There is more than enough. Thus, each exhalation is cleansing, and each inhalation is nourishing.

Bring your awareness to the flow of your breathing. Soften your abdomen as well as the sides and back of your rib cage so that the breath can flow easily. Let the sensation of breathing be very physical—a movement in the belly and lower ribs that feels pleasant and relaxing. Begin to notice the sensations of breathing itself. Feel how the flow of each exhalation empties you, carrying away tension, waste, and fatigue. Next, feel how the flow of each inhalation fills you, drawing in a sense of fresh energy and well-being. You are not focusing much on the thoughts that come and go in your mind. The main focus of your awareness is the flow of your breath.

Let some time pass. Then gradually begin to sense the process of breathing more deeply. Instead of passively feeling emptied by the breath, quietly gather the weariness of your body, and the negativity and darkness of your mind, and consciously let it go with the exhalation.

You do not need to be depressed to do this. There is always some level of fatigue and tension in us that we can release in this way. But if you are passing through a time of low moods, then with each breath, consciously let go of any sense of suffering in your body or mind by letting it be part of the breath as it flows out. (A good visualization for this is the image of opening your fingers and releasing inner suffering and fatigue from the palm of your hand.)

You do not need to be depressed to do this. There is always some level of fatigue and tension in us that we can release in this way.

Next, as you inhale, consciously receive and accept a tide of fresh energy into your self. It will be distributed naturally to your body and mind, and in this way you are replenishing your energy and restoring the feeling of well-being that is naturally yours.

Adjust your body from time to time if you need to in order to remain comfortable and relaxed. Thoughts may come and go, but they are not your main focus. You are focusing on the breath. If some of your thoughts remain dark or difficult to manage, don’t dwell on them. Be aware that you can practice breath awareness again later, whenever the need arises. But during the exercise do not brood. Simply be aware of the feeling of your breath.

Finally, after some minutes—10 or so—you may find that you are finished being aware of the breath and that your mind is gradually becoming more active again. This rise in thinking is a good thing. It is the mind coming back to life. So when it is time to come out of your quiet period of breath awareness, simply cup your eyes with your hands and slowly draw your awareness out into the world around you.

Your breath is like a ribbon linking you to infinite resources within, nourishing your body and mind.

You can practice this exercise two or three times a day if you like, but doing it just once a day will be surprisingly beneficial. Your breath is like a ribbon linking you to infinite resources within, nourishing your body and mind. And the feeling of exhaling and inhaling that you experience during your practice is always available to you. Through breath awareness, breath by breath, you invite the presence of health to return. 

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>

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