Aparigraha: Practicing Release with the Exhale
One way of translating aparigraha is non-possessiveness. Possession is another word for control – in relation to something that has happened in the past, is happening in the present, or to an outcome we wish for in the future. In the body, this attempt to control can lead to shallow breathing, when we tighten in response to the fear an outcome other than the one we want.
What does shallow breathing feel like in the body? Tight abdominal muscles, which limits the movement of the diaphragm, so that the body relies on the upper back and shoulder muscles to provide movement needed for inhaling and exhaling. This is the breathing pattern associated with the autonomic “fight, flight or freeze” aspect of the nervous system. When I am in a stressful situation I often get a tension headache due to this response in my body. Chronic stress, often from trying to control that which cannot be controlled, can lead to a pattern where we are constantly in the “fight, flight or freeze” state. This is reflected in our breathing pattern. Fortunately, working with our breath is the gateway to affecting the autonomic nervous system, helping us return to the parasympathetic “rest and digest” state. This involves training the exhale:
First, notice your breathing pattern, especially which areas move upon inhale and exhale, and the ratio of time spent in inhalation versus exhalation. During the next breath cycle, try to exhale for a count of 6 seconds. If this is easy, you can increase the exhalation to 10 seconds. Continue in this way. Notice what occurs as you perform this breathing exercise.
There can sometimes be a feeling of stress or mild panic as part of you wants to immediately take another inhale. This might relate to the fear of letting go of the illusion of control. Can you trust that there is an inhale at the bottom of the exhale? Try to take it a step further, and exhale all the stale air out of your lungs. Go slowly, moving the air through pursed lips. Pursed lips helps create back pressure so that the deepest part of your lungs open up. Let go of all the stale air in the recesses of your lungs. This may take up to 25 seconds for a complete exhale.
For most of us, there is a shocking amount of stale air in the lungs that never gets released. Notice the sensation of letting go of the breath, and the fullness of the inhale that follows. Repeat again and again, for 5-10 minutes if possible. Breathing in this way will reset the balance of the autonomic nervous system, allowing the respiratory muscles to work in better balance. Achieving balance in the breath may even help with the practice of aparigraha in the greater sense.