Harnessing the Breath with Leslie A. Kaminoff

In Power Living® with Dr. Terri Kennedy, explore how to harness breath with Leslie A. Kaminoff, co-founder of The Breathing Project. Leslie has 30 years experience in yoga, breath technique and anatomy, and is the author of the popular book, Yoga Anatomy.

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Terri: We all breathe but we don't all take in the same amount of oxygen. The ability to harness the breath is a key Power Living habit. To give us more perspective, I caught up with Leslie Kaminoff, co-founder of The Breathing Project. I asked him why we should be focused on the breath. 

Leslie: Aren't we all breathing? Doesn't the body know how to breathe? Isn't it an autonomic function? You know? It happens whether you're paying attention to it or not. It is also voluntary in that we can take control of our breath under certain situations and - and uh in certain contexts. 

Terri: According to Leslie, we use the power of the breath without even realizing it.

Leslie: Whether it's external factors we're dealing with or stuff that's happening inside, we - we use our breath to um basically uh shift our internal states and we've been doing it ever since we were in diapers. I mean the first time we do it is our first day in diapers when we fill up with pee and pooh and we don't yet quite know that squeezing in and pushing down is going to make it go away - but we learn real fast. You know? And it turns out that a lot of people keep doing that squeeze and push down thing any time something is uncomfortable inside. You know? And it's - it's an early skill that we learn and it's one that we tend to perpetuate. Unfortunately, not everything unpleasant inside can be squeezed in and pushed down to be gotten rid of because not all of it exits through our butt hole. 

Terri: Leslie has over thirty years experience in yoga, breath technique and anatomy. I asked him about the relationship between breath and the health of the spine.

Leslie: You know, in yoga we actually have this idea of - of lifting up. You know, of bringing things upward and using the breath that way. And when you do that, uh - a lot of transformation occurs. On a physical level, a lot of the back pain that people end up with - you know pain in the lower part of the spine is often associated with a lack of support here (pointing to a skeleton) in the abdominal region. Now, what people don't often recognize is that a lack of support in the abdominal region is synonymous with too much pressure coming downward from the ribcage and diaphragm. So, a lot of the back pain that people have is nothing more than dysfunctional breathing. You know? And there's a lot of evidence to support this because it goes hand-in-hand with this perspective that a lot of the back pain people suffer from has to do with emotional suppression. It's the work of Dr. Sarno -  John Sarno, who wrote Healing Back Pain. So why should your average person care about their breathing? If they're perfectly happy and they - they have absolutely no trouble handling their emotional states and they have absolutely no pain in their body - in other words, if there is no Duhkha - if there is no suffering then they shouldn't worry about the breathing. You know? Because everything's fine. But if any of those things are true for anybody then what - what - what we teach is that breathing is an integral part of dealing with it. And that's why people come to The Breathing Project - to get the help and also people come here to get trained how to give that sort of help. 

Terri: Leslie is truly a breath specialist so I asked him if there is a right way to breathe.

Leslie: There's no one right way to breathe. People who come who haven't had any training, they still have habits. You know? A lot of times it involves hardening the belly. Uh, like as if you're going to get punched in the stomach. You know? How would you protect yourself? Instinctively you harden your belly. Well, you know, life kind of punches you in the gut as you're growing up repeatedly and we can't allow ourselves to be that sensitive all the time because we would not survive so we learn this and it's an - it's an essential thing that we learn. But how to unlearn it is really tricky. In fact, when you take someone who has that pattern and you put them in a yoga class and they're taught - oh, now you should move your belly back and forth and that's the proper way to use your diaphragm, all they're really doing is you're taking that - that knot of tension and changing its shape. They're moving their tension forward and back and that's belly breathing. And your average yoga teacher would say, "Okay, you're doing it right" and they would leave it at that. Well, you can't just do that. You have to understand the nature of the knot and how to untie it. You know? If I were to generalize the pattern that we see most frequently, we see that. Now, there are other dysfunctional breathing patterns that people come in with. There's the classic sort of paradoxical breather (demonstrating) who's doing this which is actually less common than the knotted up belly movement. Okay, but we do see that occasionally. So, in other words, someone who can't move their belly very well when they're inhaling. And what do we teach them? We teach them to do a belly breath. But not because it's the right way to breathe, just because it's different than their pattern.  

Terri: Leslie sees yoga as a path to changing habits. 

Leslie: As - as my teacher Desikachar is fond of saying, um, "Your yoga practice always has to be a little more clever than your habits." And we have habits around all the things we've already learned which can get in the way of experiencing something new and fresh. 

Terri: Leslie designs specific exercises to get people unstuck.

Leslie: You want to find where someone is stuck and figure out a way to get them unstuck. And the pattern you use to get them unstuck isn't the "right" way to breathe, it's just different than what they walked in with and that's what we really try to get people to understand. The benefits you get from - from yoga or breathing exercises or anything - they're not contained in the exercise. It's not like, "Oh, if you master this asana it will cure that disease because doing this asana fixes that problem." It's what you have to undo in your body to get to the asana, that has the power. Same thing with a breathing exercise.  You know? "Oh, if you do Alternate Nostril Breathing with this ratio for this long it will cure and balance all of these things." And you can just look at the books and they just list these things. You know but the point is nobody can just sit down and do that pattern right away. They need to train and practice. Why? Because they have to undo whatever pattern they're starting with. So, learning a new way to breathe is really about unlearning your old way to breathe and the benefit comes from that unlearning. And it's a little counter intuitive - uh and people don't quite understand the concept right away but eventually we get it across because we give people the experience.    

Terri: In addition to Leslie's popular Yoga Anatomy book, he has a new program called Freeing the Breath.

Leslie: You know? And uh that's what excites me. I love seeing people's bodies come to life. I love seeing the breath finding and seeking out those spaces where it hasn't moved for awhile and - and just the unbelievable transformation that happens.  

Terri: Breath is the gateway to consciousness. How can you use breath to change your state of mind? Take time to pause and simply observe. The power is in your hands.


Copyright Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy. Photo credit: Pexels.

Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy is a Harvard Business School-trained Strategist, Mind-Body Expert, Award-Winning Author, Keynote Speaker and Activist.  She is Founder & CEO of Power Living and creator of Elder Dignity.  Selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, her mission is to unleash human potential and create a more just and sustainable world.

View Part I: The Essence of Yoga with Leslie A. Kaminoff

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