Are you breathing? That seems like a silly question. Of course you’re breathing. You breath 10 to 20 time a minute, every hour of every day. That’s over 600 million breaths in a lifetime.
But are you breathing? I mean, do you ever breathe consciously, to calm yourself, to cleanse yourself, to elevate yourself? Curiously, as common as breathing is—10 to 20 times every minute—breathing can be extremely powerful when used consciously. Breathing is at the center of many practical and spiritual practices aimed at bringing us back to ourselves, or even transcending our normal experience.
One form of meditation involves focusing on the breath. “Freeze Frame,” a stress reduction technique from Heartmath, includes a step of “breathing into the heart” (www.heartmath.com). Taking “three conscious breaths” when under stress is another prescription for dealing with difficulties. “Belly breathing” is advised to increase relaxation and even prescribed to alleviate panic attacks.
Yoga, in part, involves paying attention to how one breathes. “Resonant breathing,” in which one follows an imagined path of the breath coming in through the nose, into the forehead, over the top of the head, down the spine, through the gut, up through the chest and throat, and out through the mouth, is advised for relaxation or meditation. Physical therapists even prescribe the beginning and end of this process—breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth—to slow the breath after exercises.
What is it about the breath, when used consciously, that moves us from stress and turmoil to calm and centeredness? There may be many helpful elements in a conscious breath that make it helpful, but I am going to concentrate on two of them.
First, focusing on the breath distracts us from troubling thoughts. These may be the thoughts of the “monkey mind” that come during meditation. Or they may be the worrisome thoughts associated with events that upset us. When we gently focus our minds on our breath, we turn our attention to a neutral subject, something that needs no judgement or rumination, something that just occurs as we watch. This alone calms the mind.
Second, conscious breathing affects us physiologically. Stress is associated with the fight, flight, or freeze response, in which the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood. If we consciously take slower, deeper breaths, the greater volume of oxygen in the lungs results in a slower dose of oxygen. This counteracts the stress hormones. Our heart rate slows. Our stomach muscles stretch, and nerve endings in the stomach signal the brain that there is “no danger,” that is, we can step down the fight, flight, or freeze response.
Things simultaneously go on in the brain. The signal “no danger” tells the part of the brain called the amygdala, which initiated the fight, flight, or freeze response in the first place, to quiet down. The higher parts of the brain associated with reason, judgement, and creativity can respond more easily. In as little as 90 seconds, we can change from a stressed, unreasoned response to a calm, rational one.
I invite you to try it right now. Wherever you are, sitting or standing, take three conscious breaths. Then see how you feel.
This tool is always available to you, to calm you, to bring you back to yourself, to experience the world more fully. The breath is truly a force of life, bringing you more calmness and clarity, more aliveness and creativity in whatever you do.
This is Glenn Stevenson, with Self Sense Counseling and Coaching, until next month, inviting you to breathe!