What is one thing you can do when you are: getting angry during a conflict, frustrated with unchanging circumstances, feeling overwhelming grief, or struggling with pain and suffering in your body? Deep, centering breathing. No one has to know you’re doing it, you don’t have to leave where you are. Yet, the simple act of deep, slowing breathing can get you through a moment with grace, or transform your mood completely. Breath is one of those functions that is automated, and yet, we also have a great deal of influence over.
The way in which we breath has an enormous impact on our mental and physical health. Just by reading this, you’re probably paying a little more attention to your own breath right now. What’s going on with your breath? Is it shallow, with your chest the only part of your torso rising and falling? Is it rapid, jagged, or short? Observation of the breath, even without actively trying to change it, can be a small mindfulness practice on the way to better breathing.
Benefits to deep breathing
- More mindful response to a situation, or person(s). Instead of a knee jerk reaction from a place of raw limbic brain response, you can create space with breath for a response that will be more in alignment with your true self.
- Moderate your heart rate. People who experience anxiety often report a racing heart rate, tight chest, and uncontrolled worried thoughts. By deep, slow breathing, you moderate the heart rate, which lets the body know it is in fact not in danger, and can stop engaging in sympathetic nervous system behavior.
- Releasing tension from the body. Everyone has a pretty good idea of where they tend to “store their stress”. Tight neck and shoulders? Pain between the shoulder blades? Low back pain? Mindful breathing can actively release areas of muscular tension in the body.
- Literally bringing more oxygen into the body. Obviously this happens without our conscious thought, but improving your breathing technique will greatly increase oxygen uptake. Our brain especially requires vast quantities of oxygen, so to keep our minds sharp and clear, getting adequate oxygen is important.
- Expelling carbon dioxide more completely, which would otherwise be harmful. Chest breathing, an all too common default, leaves residual carbon dioxide in the lungs, making oxygen uptake less efficient. This can lead to diminished brain function and stamina levels.
- Massaging your organs. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Breathing causes the diaphragm to move up and down which alternates the physical and energetic pressure of the two cavities in the torso. The gently alternating air pressure in the thoracic cavity massages the organs which help to maintain their longevity.
So how do we breathe better?
Belly breathing, as I like to refer to it, can be practiced regularly in order for it to become a natural, automated process. Instead of the chest rising and falling abruptly, the breath goes all the way down into the belly, causing a gentle expansion as oxygen comes in, and a softening as the breath leaves.
The easiest way to integrate it into stressful situations is by practicing it in un-stressful situations first. Take 5 minutes (ideally 10 or 15 minutes) in a quiet room by yourself, either seated or lying down to do the following practice:
- Simple breath normally for 10 breaths and simply observe where in your body you feel your breath.
- As the mind quiets a bit, focus on the path of the breath
- Follow the movement of the air as it enters your nose
- Follow the movement of air down into your lungs
- Feel the lungs fill with air and the diaphragm moving downwards into the abdominal cavity.
- The abdomen should expand gently
- Feel the abdomen deflate, as the lungs empty and the air begins to move back out of the nose.
- Rinse and repeat. Observe. Be gentle with yourself, your mind, and the process.
Integrating calming breathing into your everyday
The idea is for belly breathing to become your normal breath. If it already is, then focusing on deep and slow breathing during times of stress is your next step. In both cases, “practicing” your breathing during your day is key.
Try coming up with a reminder that can cue you to take a pause. The time between activities can be a good opportunity to take 5 conscious breaths (or more!). Let that be your mantra, a little voice in your head, that says “okay, now 5 conscious breaths”. For example, the pause between brushing your teeth and the next task. The pause between going from one errand to another. The pause at the traffic light. The pause between your eyes opening in the morning and getting out of bed. There are thousands of pauses in your day. Relish those chances to come back to the present, to your breath, to you.
The real juice of the practice is using your breath as an anchor in times of stress and emotional reactivity. Remember to breath, deep and slow, and pause. Very few situations we perceive as stressful require emergency-like response. There’s generally always time to just breath consciously (because, your body is already doing it, right?). Your mind will be sharper, your body less tense, and you’ll be more equipped to respond from a place of centered clarity.
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.