Neural Axis®

Neural Axis®

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The Complete Breath (Your Brain on Yoga series)

[Originally published on US News Health, 16 October, 2013

If I trace back my yogic journey into the depths of the mind and body, I can immediately recall certain events and encounters that made a powerful impact on the larger unfolding of the Path. The simplest of these was learning how to breathe properly. By this point I had already made substantial headway in the physical domain of exertion, strength, flexibility and control in yoga. All of these undoubtedly helped to form a solid foundation for further progress; however, it was unlocking the potential of the breath that opened new doors. It cultivated an experiential link between gross physical awareness and the more subtle perceptions of the body and mind. It actually empowered the physical movements by building vitality, endurance and steadiness of mind.

When most of us breathe, we employ shallow chest breathing. This looks like holding the belly relatively still while the sternum lifts, and it feels like only the upper lungs exchange air. If you place one hand on your chest and one on the belly, see which one moves first. If the upper hand moves first, that is shallow chest breathing. Conversely, the Complete Breath makes use of the full capacity we have to breathe. The mechanism of the Complete Breath has four components: pelvic, abdominal, thoracic and clavicular. To start, relax your abdomen like you're holding a basketball inside it. Feel that it is expanding forwards, sideways and even backwards into the kidneys and adrenal glands. Then gently let the belly open downwards and relax the pelvic floor, almost as if you are releasing the bladder to urinate. When you inhale, the breath should similarly relax the pelvic floor downwards and the abdominal area in all directions. Once the belly fills on inhalation, let the rib cage, chest and shoulder blades expand passively as the breath fills that area, feeling as if there is another basketball there. Once the thoracic (chest) area fills, allow the clavicles (collar bones) and shoulders to naturally lift and feel as if they are expanding outwards. All of the above – pelvic, abdominal, thoracic and clavicular expansion – filling up in order upon inhalation and emptying in reverse order upon exhalation, all with smooth even breaths, together comprise the physical mechanism of the Complete Breath.  

When consciously breathing in this way, we affect control over physiological mechanisms that directly correlate with physical, mental and emotional health. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down through the viscera/organs, is intimately modulated by the breath. This nerve regulates autonomic physiological functions such as heart rate, respiration, digestion and immune response. The responsiveness of heart rate to changes in respiration, termed respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), is directly linked with the vagus nerve, and 'vagal tone' is often used as an index of the whole state of the parasympathetic nervous system, for the readiness with which we can calm the body's stress responses. On the micro level, inhalation increases heart rate and decreases vagal tone, and exhalation decreases heart rate and increases vagal tone. Therefore, performing a 1:2 breath ratio (exhaling twice as long as the inhalation) can result in a greater sense of relaxation. On a macro physiological level, greater vagal tone is associated with vasodilation, decreased inflammatory responses, and decreased circulation of stress hormones. Moreover, studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between loving-kindness meditation, superior emotional regulation, positive social behavior, and a decrease in headaches, chest pains, congestion and weakness.  

Learning and practicing the Complete Breath helped me to progressively feel more relaxed, open and aware, and it increased conscious performance in many areas and activities. It also served as the basic training to control physiological responses and provided experiential proof that conscious attention can alter bodily processes. Experiencing this principle along with feeling the scientifically demonstrated biological effects served as the jumping board for more advanced practices that improve bone health, neuroendocrine functionality, cognitive stability and strength, sexual vitality, intuitive ability, and much more. 

In addition to the physical benefits above, as well as massaging the internal organs, breathing in this way – when applied to any activity, physical or otherwise – also increases the awareness of subtleties that the mind may otherwise not notice due to habitually higher immune and stress defenses. Both of these are correlated with the lower vagal tone experienced most of the time by the majority of people, in which the mind's scope is dialed into a more gross/solid physical state of awareness. After learning the physical mechanism of the breath, being able to perform it automatically and joining the components so that it occurs in a fluid manner, the next step is to open up the nervous system to greater subtle awareness. By increasing and sustaining the resolution (fineness) of attention, the nerves increase their connective strength, capacitance and sensitivity. Feel the interconnection between the air outside of the body and the air inside of it. Become aware of the larger system of respiratory exchange within you and in all of nature. Feel the ionic charge of the air around you and that electricity continuing in through your body. Play with carrying this conscious, smooth full breathing into daily activities such as eating, showering, thinking and exercising. Play with combining it with these four-dimensional breathing exercises. It can also be coupled with sound and mantra by inhaling and exhaling the subtle sensations of sound. Observe the differences in sensation and experience over time, and continue playing.  

Without the Complete Breath, I would probably still be struggling to find a sense of inner calm and steadiness of mind, two invaluable factors for a healthy body, mind and spirit – and certainly necessary for further progress on any serious path that cultivates higher human potential. It is a prime example of how yogic tools are designed as technologies for improved health and wellness. The breath is a gateway that can, with conscious attention and intention, unite the physical with the subtle, the outer world with the inner world, the physiological with the psychological, movement with stillness and the mundane with the spiritual. 


The Brain in Four ['integral' quadrant] Dimensions

 [Originally published on US News Health, 18 September, 2013.]

Rise and shine. It's morning (presumably), and you've just begun transitioning from the slower brain wave states of deep sleep and dreaming into the externally embedded reality of your waking life. Depending on your routine, life circumstances and disposition, you may selectively notice certain aspects or attend to the contents of awareness in a particular order. Your brain activates in a certain way, creating a pattern or neural groove that you then follow by habit, which in turn coordinates your behavioral patterns for the time being. We begin this general process when we wake up, extend it throughout the day and dwindle down in the evening, often in an automatic unconscious rhythm. Let's take a brief tour through the fundamental dimensions of awareness that the brain is wired to process, followed by a one-minute exercise for balancing them.

As you're reading this, perhaps among all the contents of your awareness you may come to feel your somatic sensations through interoception, the detection of stimuli from within your own body. Involuntary functions such as heart rate, digestion, muscle tension and breath are communicated up our brain stem (the oldest part of our brain that encodes basic drives) and the limbic system (associated with emotional coloring and subconscious assessment of our world) to the insula (a critical region that encodes interoception and self-awareness). You may notice the emotions you are feeling, the thoughts you are having and the motivations or intentions you have. These internal perceptions arise once signals from the aforementioned brain regions travel up to the middle prefrontal cortex, one of the most evolved brain regions in humans where we integrate our many perceptions to make a map of our internal world, allowing insight, morality, empathy and intuition to emerge. This completes the "resonance circuit," which allows you to feel yourself as a whole individual personality through introspection. This whole aspect of awareness is your interior individual ("I") dimension. 

You may become aware of another dimension: the exterior individual("It"). The five senses allow the space exterior to you to penetrate your inner awareness. You may notice individual objects along with their visual properties; physical sensations of touch such as clothes against your skin, or perhaps perspiration following a workout; the sounds around you, such as the electrical hum of your computer, human chatter and the sounds of nature; the smells and your capacity to distinguish them; and taste. See if you can take in the information from all the senses simultaneously. Each of these senses has its own pathway through the brain, integrating in the prefrontal cortex, where we make meaning of our senses. A template of the environment is formed as a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex, processing directional information that helps us orient ourselves in space. Our relationship with a physical object through touch is formed in part in the somatosensory cortex; after we learn to use a particular tool or device, our brain programs it as a virtual extension of our body, akin to a prosthetic limb, so that it becomes an operational "part" of us. You can also take in all your senses at once. Observe your behavioral in relation to the senses. Notice how this data is immediately available.

As you go through the day and observe more of your environment, you may notice that beyond the individual objects there is a strand of connectivity between them. Groups of objects come together in organized networks and interdependent systems of interaction. The arrangement of a chair, desk and laptop together is a purposeful and functional arrangement of objects in space. The distribution of city roads and highways that conduct traffic patterns is a system of seemingly separate objects functioning together. The awe that we can experience from recognizing the fractal patterns of nature, how the intricate designs of flowers, organisms and landscapes seem to follow some underlying blueprint facilitated by DNA. The way giant rocks in the solar system billions of years ago began rotating around the sun and spinning on axes to give us gravity, keeping us grounded in our day to day lives. The way the letters you are reading form words form sentences form a narrative structure that makes sense. The learned associations between objects from the senses is encoded in the perirhinal cortex. In case your head hasn't already exploded, see if you can grasp all these systems all at once for just a moment. This awe-full dimension of our awareness is theexterior collective ("Its").

The fourth and final dimension is the interior collective ("We"). In this dimension you become aware of your relationships. This is the felt sense of connection with another person or group of people. Feel into the connections you have with family, with co-workers, with friends and the core values that thread them together. Notice the difference in the "we"-ness between these groups. These are the codes of shared understanding that allow us to coherently relate with one another. The neural correlate of the experience of this shared meaning is the mirror neuron system, which allows us to reflect, as it were, and empathically resonate with the intentions and motivations of others, and to align our own emotional and physiological state with theirs. The capacity we have to resonate with others is closely linked with our capacity to reflect on our own mental state, as they both make use of the resonance circuit described above.

These four dimensions, the "I," "We," "It" and "Its" are all accessible to us at any given moment. Perhaps you noticed that there were one or two that may have been easier to access than the others. Since they are all integral to healthy brain function, it is important to work out all of them. Below is a one-minute exercise called "Integral Breathing" that you can do anytime. It is especially useful between tasks or when approaching a new situation.

1. I Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of what is arising within your subjective awareness. Rest within.

2. We Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, notice what arises between you and others, and rest in that connection of shared experiences and meanings.

3. It Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, open your senses and notice the qualities of surrounding space. Abide here.

4. Its Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, notice the larger context around you: the ecological and planetary information, legal, economic, environmental and educational systemic intersections. Rest everywhere.

5. Whole Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of and rest in all four dimensions at once.

Repeat three times, for a total of 15 breaths. Play with this every day for a week and see what happens.