By Bulbul Beri
Breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body. – Thich Nhat Hanh
These last few weeks, I have been thinking about breathing … alot. It seems whatever I am reading, watching, doing or whoever I am talking to recently is reminding me to consciously breathe and to be grateful that I am able to.
Your whole life is the space between your first and last breaths. This is so apparent currently as globally, many people have lost their lives and loved ones and continue to do so: The Black Lives Matter Movement sparked by George Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe”; the second year of a respiratory health pandemic where many parts of the world are suffering greatly, with new cases spiralling and out of control, and not enough resources to manage them; hospitals have run out of oxygen and patients are struggling to breathe. Earth day (celebrated a couple of days ago on 22nd April) is a movement to restore our Planet and the right for all to breathe clean air. Everything I am being exposed to is making me grateful and consciously aware that I can breathe.
During periods of stress and overwhelm, I find myself either holding my breath or taking very shallow breaths, and in turn feeling more anxious about the situation. In my recent years, practising mindfulness, I have learned to catch myself in the act of what I call “stressed” breathing, and am often able to consciously pause and slowly inhale and exhale for a few breaths and calm down. Interestingly, many people I know going through their own life struggles have recently mentioned how stressed and anxious they feel and how tight their breath feels perpetuating the anxiety.
Researching this I learned that when we feel stressed, our breathing rate and pattern changes. These breathing patterns activate the sympathetic nervous system (often referred to as the “fight or flight response”). When we are under stress, our breath is usually fast and shallow and we tend to breathe from our upper body. (Note: To see if you are breathing this way, watch your shoulders go up and down.)
However, we also have the power to deliberately change our own breathing. In fact we can consciously control our breathing rate and pattern.
Scientific studies have shown that controlling your breath can help to manage stress, anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and attention-deficit disorder, increase alertness, and boost your immune system.
Better Breathing Techniques
French Psychiatrist, Christophe André in his article in the Scientific American, offers the following clinically proven breathing techniques to reduce stress and anxiety and help us monitor and control our body into a calmer state of mind:
Instead of taking shallow breaths into our upper body, deep breathing from the abdomen is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. Start by inflating your belly by inhaling, as if to fill it with air, then swell your chest. As you exhale, first “empty” your stomach, then your chest. This type of breathing is easier to observe and test while lying down, with one hand on your stomach..
Following Your Breath
Simply observe your respiratory movements: be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Focus on the sensations you feel as air passes through your nose and throat or on the movements of your chest and belly. When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention to your breath.
Breathe in and out slowly through one nostril, holding the other one closed using your finger; then reverse and continue by alternating regularly. There are many variations of this exercise—for example, inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. Research suggests breathing through the nose is somewhat more soothing than breathing through your mouth.
My Favourite Breathing Technique
I am a huge Karate Kid fan, and one of the simplest most effective techniques of breathing is demonstrated by Miyagi San below:
Given that we can live roughly for 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water but only 3 minutes without breathing, it is funny that most of the time as we are racing through our daily routines, we are not even aware of how we are breathing. We don’t even think about breathing, until it is a struggle. For every breath we are able to take, someone is taking their last. Make that breath count. Smile and breath deeply, Breathe in love, joy, positive energy and peace. Breathe out negativity, fear, resentment and regrets.
The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your breaths. The way you breathe reflects your thoughts and emotions and changing your breath can change your thoughts and emotions. The first step is to become aware of your breath, then you can regulate it.