Looking to fulfill a more spiritual component to the space series, I reached out to a man named Randall Krause. On top of being one of the nicest (and most patient) people I have ever met, Randall is a teacher of Himalayan Yoga Meditation and the founder of Hym-la, a charitable nonprofit providing support to three schools in India.
Although he lives in LA, he took an hour to Skype with me on Saturday morning and teach me about how to create space in my body using my breath (the foundation of meditation).
Here's what I learned.
#1: The Posture - Makarasana (also known as "crocodile pose")
Getting into the posture:
Lie flat on the floor on your belly with the chin, chest and abdomen
touching the ground.
Stretch out the legs together at full length.
Keep the arms on their respective sides.
Spread the legs comfortably apart and rest them on the floor, with
heels pointing towards each other and the edges of the feet touch the floor.
The toes pointing outward.
Bring one hand beneath the opposite elbow and grasp it lightly and place
the other hand on the opposite elbow and grasp it lightly.
Elbows are close enough to your shoulders so that your chest is raised
slightly off the ground.
Rest your forehead on your forearms in the space in between your arms.
Close your eyes and relax.
Breathe deeply, smoothly, and evenly in this position as long as
After watching me breathe in this posture for a couple of minutes, Randall noticed that my breaths were shallow and irregular. Not surprisingly, my breathing has actually been a real source of frustration for me lately. Given my recent work and school grind, not only have my workouts been less regular (which helps replenish the oxygen in my cells and revitalize my lungs and organs), but I've replaced a lot of my workout time with long hours seated and working. Often I get frustrated, worrying why "I can't breathe." I've been blaming it on heartburn....
Rather than taking antacids, Randall instructed me to pull my belly in more forcefully ("Draw in your belly! Get skinny!" - which really cracked me) in order to force out the stale air and carbon dioxide. As long as I made the exhale active and forceful, the inhale came relatively naturally.
Once I managed to get a decent breath in and out, we moved on to the rhythm of my breathing. The goal was to make the flow of my breath smooth, with the end of each exhale transitioning as seamlessly as possible into the inhale. Well if you think the depth of my breathing is sad, you should see the rhythm. It took everything I had to remember to keep inhales and exhales rotating on a 1-to-1 ratio, much less keeping it smooth. At a certain point I had it kind of going (what can I say, I got in a groove) so we moved on to counting the number of seconds that each inhale and exhale took - the duration of my breaths. Ideally, Randall said, the number should be even. For me, my inhales took 6 seconds and my exhales took 5. Rather than trying to bring the lower number up to meet the higher one, he said it usually worked better to decrease the higher number to meet the lower one. So the next step was that I needed to work on decreasing my inhales to 5 counts while trying to keep my exhales where they were. Needless to say, this breathing thing is exhausting.
One of the things that was most interesting to me was the significance of the inhale and the exhale. Randall explained to me that each has a different effect on the autonomic nervous system; whereas inhales are associated with excitement (autonomic arousal), exhales are associated with relaxation (autonomic inhibition). He was quite astute in his assessment of my extra long inhale that (and I quote) I might "be a little hyper all day." Oh Randall, you have no idea. On the other end of the spectrum, if your exhales are always a little longer than your inhales, you're likely to feel a little lethargic or be sluggish throughout the day. So by practicing our breathing and learning to keep the breath even and steadily, we can actually learn to have better control over our energy, anxiety, and lethargy throughout the day.
(Another fun tip: try making your exhales longer and deeper when you're trying to fall asleep to slow down the autonomic nervous system and guide the body into sleep)
This posture is a way to start on the road to breathing and meditation. Randall instructed me to to do this for 10 minutes a day, which will both (1) teach me to breathe, and (2) strengthen my diaphragm (the way you are situated in this posture actually forces you to breathe with your diaphragm - the "belly breathing" muscle).
How does this create space?
The lesson for me that day was essentially that the inhale (the renewal of fresh air and oxygen) would come relatively easily and naturally, it was the exhale that I had to actively focus on and develop.
In my pre-Randall days, whenever I felt my yawning/can't breathe/chest pains/discomfort, I immediately started to take in tons of big gulping breaths; my body must need air, right? Well, no Jen. No. These big gulps of air were to my body what relationship fillers, job fillers, and friend fillers were to my life: they were an attempt to take in more before my I had a chance to process and expel what I already had. As usual, I was trying to bring in what I felt I needed or was missing before I made space for it.
In previous posts I explained the process of catharsis- the idea that emotional health is dependent on the expulsion of repressed emotions, thoughts, and feelings from the subconscious. If they aren't, they will dwell beneath your conscious mind, exerting a pressure that will slowly poison your system and lead to symptoms like anxiety and depression. Just like the active process of catharsis allows us to make space in our mind for genuine awareness and well being, the act of meditation (or here, the simple exercise of focused breathing) allows us to make space for more oxygen - our basic, fundamental life force.
This is, in the most practical sense, as physical and active a process as catharsis is - both in the form of mental and emotional purging, as well as in the physical sense (to explore catharsis, read the previous space posts: Space Part II: The Function of Space Fillers
and Space Part III: Catharsis
). Just like physical workouts and emotional catharsis, learning to breathe requires discipline. The crocodile pose not only facilitates the proper breathing and has the physiological benefits that were listed above, but it also strengthens the diaphragm - a muscle that, if we take full advantage of it, can fortify the structure of our well being and future. Just like the failure to work through our emotions and needs can lead to anxiety, depression, and detachment from our core, inner "self," the failure to properly breathe; move oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of your system; can lead to a deregulation of energy, anxiety, and physical functioning.
#2: The Posture - Sitting and Breathing
(Also known as " sit down Indian style and chill out for a second")
Photograph by Cabell Cox, taken on the Brazilian/Bolivian border
After the crocodile pose, Randall had me sit up and just breathe for a minute. Literally, just one minute. Since I am a yogi now, he had me chant a mantra in my head with each inhale and exhale. Since I don't have a mantra, he let me use one of his. It went like this: on the inhale, you say "so" in your mind (soooooooo), and then on the exhale, you say "hum" (hummmmm). This was my first real experience in meditation, but it was very rejuvenating and filled my body with warmth and calm - in just one minute! Randall said that when he was younger he was a lawyer, and when taking the bar exam there was one point where he was so exhausted he felt he couldn't go on. Well, he stopped for about five minutes and meditated, and was restored mentally enough to finish the exam - and pass.
Well, I personally was so excited and pumped from my one minute of meditation that I told Randall I wanted to start working on my entire Osho Meditations book (which, I might add, I have yet to even chill out long enough to finish reading, much less try) but Randall, in his balanced, patient way, encouraged me to learn how to breathe and sit still for one minute before I embark on the complicated Osho Meditations. Let me tell you, this man was a missing piece in my life.
Randall explained to me that by working through these meditations, not only would I balance my breathing, energy, and anxiety, but (perhaps even more importantly)
I would create space in my mind and between my emotions.
In the end, although my breathing was a jolting, uneven, concerning mess, Randall was able to laugh and get me through it. Without even knowing me, he could tell from my breathing that I probably go through life slightly nervous and anxious… (I told you, he’s a sage), and explained that simply by working to improve my breathing I can bring some peace, relaxation, and space into my body. As I mentioned before, I have books on meditation. I do the breathing exercises before and after my hot yoga classes. I obviously do the whole breathing thing a lot - I had always figured that was enough for now. But, au contraire, Randall reminded me that the only things not breathing are dead, or yogis in samadhi (the highest state of meditation), and we are neither of those things – so we need to work on, and make a commitment to, our breathing.
I really am very committed to doing both of these poses (11 minutes total) at least once a day.
In honor of this new path, we have a new theme here on the blog - Meditation. I truly hope that as I plan to stick with it some of you will join me,
and we can add another tool to our toolbox.
“One of the most wonderful things in the world is to grow, even a little, into being more happy, less agitated, more in touch with the treasure that is hidden in every heart, and my work is to change myself and the world by living and teaching Himalayan Yoga Meditation.”
- Randall Krause
Jennifer Gargotto is a student of Psychology and life. She lives in Colorado, exploring the far horizons of life. To enjoy more of her delightful writing, see her blog, HERE.