I remember exercising in junior high on the outdoor gymnasium. I don’t know if in PE we had been instructed to pay attention to our breath, but once I started it felt like I couldn’t not be present in my breath. Something about that freaked me out. Eventually something would distract me and take me back to ignoring my breathing, but somehow that anxiety continued about focusing on my breathing.
I was 20 years old when I was diagnosed with relapsing multiple sclerosis. I signed up for a Stress Management class at my university. I had been instructed by my neurologist, about how it was important to manage stress with multiple sclerosis; or maybe I read it in the NMSS magazine. My favorite meditations were guided meditations, where it seemed I left my body behind as we lay on a carpeted floor in class, and breathed in and out while listening to our instructor, a psychologist, instruct us to imagine a forest, or a beach, and breathe while he wove a tapestry of relaxation around us.
A year later I relapsed and went back home to stay with my parents while I waited out the relapse. I bought a couple of meditation CDs and listened to the guided energy to try to self soothe my overwhelmed nerves and troubling thoughts. As I would count my breath, my anxiety would just build. I would stress about not doing the meditation right, and that I was making myself more anxious and not letting the meditation have the effect it was supposed to. Sometimes I would begin spasming during the middle of a meditation. Invariably my forehead would tense up during body scans, when I lay outstretched relaxing one body part at a time, from foot to forehead. It always worked with my other body parts, but my forehead would tense up instead of relaxing, and the effort to meditate seemed exhausting.
It took a look time to learn, and honestly I think my wiring in my brain had just gotten mixed up, and relaxation signals weren’t firing as they were supposed to, or it was spasticity in my forehead. I found a psychologist who did TMS/ neurofeedback therapy with me for a year. It helped a lot of things, but above all, it helped me to meditate. I learned to be still, I learned how to take breaks from overly stressed parts of my brain. It was invaluable to me.
While I was doing the neurofeedback therapy, I was also doing pelvic floor therapy, and taking singing lessons. It was an hour’s drive to Asheville from my small town, and so I usually did two appointments in one day. So, concurrently as I learned to control my pelvic floor through biofeedback exercises, I learned how to better control my voice, and navigated around the damaged areas in my brain during Neurofeedback therapy sessions.
I remember learning during this time, how essential my pelvic muscles were to my breathing. The same muscles that need to tense and relax while we go to the bathroom, are foundational to our breathing. As I practiced deep breathing at my voice lessons I learned to breath through these muscles, as if the air was traveling through the vacuum of my body, through my nose and out my birth canal. (Forgive my old fashioned language. I was raised Mormon, and that’s what my Aunt Elaine always called it, and I like the termanology.)
If you want to learn more about pelvic breathing, I found a really nice series of videos on youtube. You could ask your neurologist, MS Specialist, or PCP for a referral to a physical therapist for pelvic floor training. You do have to kind of let your inhibitions go a little for the biofeedback training as two sensors will be stick between your butt cheeks, to display your kegel muscles on a computer display, but I think it would have been so much harder to learn to control those muscles, without it.
Enough about me, here are some techniques I used to relax and breath. What is most important is that any tool you use to calm your body and your mind needs to fit with not only who you are as a person, but with what you are comfortable with in that moment. Somedays when spasticity is bad, I don’t feel like I can meditate as I don’t want to concentrate on the muscles in my leg uncontrollably tightened. I know I won’t be able to relax it through body scanning, and that might make me feel unnecessary defeat, which was something that used to greatly trouble me while I learned to meditate. So, I do some box breathing instead, a few times throughout the day, and if I feel well enough I do some gentle qigong. It doesn’t even have to be breathing, it could be voice lessons like I did, if learning to sing is funner than learning to meditate. Just try things out until you find the thing that gives you a little more joy and relaxation. I’m listing some resources that I use below. There are many mediations available for free on youtube. I do have a headspace subscription because I do really like the app because there are lessons with multiple mediations that build one upon another.
Feel free to leave any questions below, or comments on what you do to breathe more freely and meditate. I wish you and your family a very happy holidays. May God be with you til we meet again.