“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.” ~Thích Nhất Hạnh
This summer the entire west coast is pretty much on fire. Fire season has been worse every year and those of us who live in this part of the country have spent a lot of time the last few summers talking about air quality and how hard it is to breathe.
Breath is one of those things we don’t think too much about until it’s a problem. We go happily along, expecting that when we need to our lungs will expand and bring in the air that we need. Then one day, it doesn’t. It’s too smoky. We’re having an asthma attack or an allergic reaction. We hyperventilate during something stressful. We’re choking. We fall and knock the wind out of ourselves. And we panic, because suddenly breath, that thing we don’t think about, is all we can think about.
Breathing is super important, obviously. It oxygenates our blood. It removes waste like carbon dioxide out of our system. It helps our cells function. It helps us talk. It produces energy. It helps us live.
Most of us go around not breathing at full capacity even on a good day. We tend to breathe with shallow breaths, only using the top of our lungs. Shallow breathing keeps our bodies from functioning as well as they could, and contributes to stress. Proper breathing uses your diaphragm and completely fills your lungs. It calms your emotions, energizes you, and clears your mind.
So why don’t we learn more about breathing? We know it’s helpful. How many times have you heard someone say to someone who is really upset, “take a deep breath”? It’s because taking a deep breath helps.
I remember years ago I’d started having the occasional stress cigarette. On particularly bad days at work, I’d sneak out behind the building and enjoy what someone I know calls “a smoky treat”. I was frustrated with myself about why I was compelled to do this. I was in therapy at the time and mentioned it to my therapist who said, “Maybe you go out to smoke because the act of smoking causes you to breathe. What if you just went outside and took a moment to breathe without the cigarette?” I tried that and it totally worked. I just needed to have a little quiet time to breathe and break up the stress of my day.
In yoga and meditation practices, they teach you to breathe more fully. We learn to take a breath in the top of our lungs, then draw it down until our stomachs expand and we activate our diaphragm. Often we’ll place our hand on our lower abdomen so we can feel it move out with our breath. The inhale ends, and the exhale begins, from the lower abdomen. Sometimes we’ll hold the breath in for a few counts before exhaling, other times we’ll consciously make the exhale longer than the inhale. Sometimes we breathe in with our noses and out with our mouths, while other times we only breathe with our noses.
There are different breathing exercises for different purposes, some are more relaxing, some are more energizing, some are cooling, some settle the mind. Just the act of focusing on our breath helps us to tune into our bodies, and relaxes us. Even without conscious effort, our breathing tends to improve just by focusing on it. But add in a specific breathing exercise, use your whole lung capacity, and it can be magical.
Try to incorporate some deep, relaxing breaths into your everyday activities. If you practice yoga or meditation that’s a perfect time, but you can also do it while you’re at a stoplight, while you’re waiting for a meeting to start, while you’re taking a walk, when you are feeling stressed or anxious, and while you’re trying to fall asleep at night. The internet is chock full of great resources on breathing including articles, videos, guided exercises and step-by-step instructions if you need more help.
Now take a deep breath with me, and relax.
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