After exiting active duty service, it was assessed that I had severe post traumatic stress. The diagnosis was so grimm, the government considers me disabled. I was appointed a therapist by the Department of Veterans Affairs. My friends and family all applauded the diagnosis. They believed talking to a professional about my experiences while at war was long overdue. I believed this to be a steaming pile of horseshit.
All that being said, I was having problems adjusting to civilian life. My professional life moved along fine. My work ethic and determination were enough to carry me without incident. But my personal life suffered. My relationships with friends, family and loved ones were strained. I slept restlessly. I was haunted by nearly a decade of war that ended too abruptly for my taste. I started regularly seeing a therapist. To my surprise, it has helped a great deal.
Last week my therapist had me participate in a breathing exercise. There are few things that can make a veteran more uncomfortable than being asked to close your eyes and breath heavily with another man in a small room. My therapist approached the subject cautiously. I assured him I regularly use intentional breathing as part of my Yoga practice. I did mention his khakis seemed inappropriate for the occasion.
In yoga, this “intentional breathing” is referred to as Ujjayi breathing. Ujjayi breathing is a breath technique employed in a variety of Taoist and Yoga practices. In relation to Yoga, it is sometimes called "the ocean breath".Ujjayi is a diaphragmatic breath, which first fills the lower belly (activating the first and second chakras), rises to the lower rib cage (the third and fourth chakras), and finally moves into the upper chest and throat.
Inhalation and exhalation are both done through the nose. The "ocean sound" is created by moving the glottis as air passes in and out. As the throat passage is narrowed, so too is the airway. The air moving through the narrowed passage creates a "rushing" sound. The length and speed of the breath is controlled by the diaphragm, and contributes to the strengthening of the core. I have often listened to the hauntingly deliberate intonation of both Jamie Lanza and David Crimi describe this breathing prior to the execution of their yoga practices.
Perhaps you aren't interested in the activation of your chakras? So what’s the practical application of breath control? Our body controls a host of functions automatically through something called the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system’s primary function is control over our flight or flight reaction, but it also manages a lot of functions for daily homeostasis. We have zero control over the majority of those functions. Heart rate, adrenaline levels, blood flow, etc. are all functions of the sympathetic nervous system. Incidentally, so is breathing. But when it comes to breathing, we get a vote
Which one controls double unders?
Although our breath is controlled largely in part by our sympathetic nervous system, if we choose, we can personally affect our breath through intentional breathing exercises. In doing so, we influence the other functions of our sympathetic nervous system that are otherwise out of our control.
When we work out, our blood flushes the limbs, our body heats up, the heart rate increases, and our breath becomes shallow and labored. If you’re unfortunate enough to have spent your entire adult life at war, you might experience similar sensations while standing in line at the bank or when surrounded by large crowds. The sensation can be uncomfortable.
For all those things out of our control, we still can assert mastery over our breath. We can establish intentional breathing. We can feel our breath slide into our nose and fill our bellies. We hold it in our center and let our chest rise proudly. When we exhale, we feel it cascading in the back of our throats like waves crashing against a cliff face. It slides away from us slowly like smoke spilling away from an extinguished candle. Before you know it, your heart has slowed down. Your body is cool. The sweat is evaporating off your brow. You are calm.
My therapist concluded the breathing practice by encouraging me to accept all sensations as they came to me. To be aware of my body. To take stock in my physical condition and surrender to it. Not coincidentally, this practice is mirrored in yoga. It is referred to as the “Shavasana.” Most yoga practices close with a shavasana, and like the breathing practice in my therapist’s office, it’s meant as a time to take stock in our bodies as we bring ourselves back to the present. It is the most difficult part of my yoga practice.
I am imperfect and flawed. I still struggle with surrendering to the things i'm feeling. I struggle with who I want to me, and who I am. On occasion, I suffer because of that struggle. To let that pain and suffering wash over you and naturally ebb away like so many receding waves is a task I might never master.
Although familiar with intentional breathing from yoga, I had not previously considered the practical application and usages. I have since applied intentional breathing exercises during workouts and while cooling down. The practice has enriched my workout experience, and helped with my overall performance.
As athletes we spend all our time focusing on going from 0-60, forgetting that if we don't learn how to slow down, we might very well come off the rails. Learning how to cool down won't just augment your daily training, but could likely improve how you live your life on a daily basis. After All, we could all stand to feel less stress and be more present.
Although I might never fully master the zen like methodology associated with cooling down, I’ll still dedicate the time and effort trying. The results are not always easily measured. But I know on occasion, when shavassanah has concluded and I relinquish control of my breath, my body is sometimes racked with sobs. In those moments I can't tell the difference between the sweat and the tears. Although the catharsis is temporary, it’s still there, if only for a moment. A moment of peace still beats a lifetime at war