Breath is your most accessible and portable tool to calm and center yourself. Breath techniques are ancient and are practiced world-wide in different religious and spiritual practices, as part of various healing modalities, and in yoga, martial arts, and other physical activities.
The breath is always with us, but we generally take it for granted. Breathing is the singular involuntary bodily activity over which humans can exert some conscious control. It happens whether we focus on it or not, but with attention we can improve the quantity and the quality of our breathing, and use the breath as an anchor for calming and centering.
The breath is a bridge or connector between the human and the external environment. Working with our breath allows us to take in a greater amount of oxygen, and expel greater quantities of the waste product carbon dioxide.
The breath is in a continuous feedback loop with the environment through this molecular exchange. Our breath also reacts to different stimuli: we breathe faster and more shallowly when afraid or agitated, we hold our breath or do a sharp intake of breath when startled, we may sigh or more forcefully exhale when frustrated or depressed or during other physical activities.
The recommended first step of breath practice is breath awareness, simply to slow down and notice your breath. Focus your attention on the breath flowing in an out of your nostrils, the engagement of your chest and abdomen, the pace and depth of the breath itself, any sensations and movement in the body. Just stopping to notice the breath is an excellent way to take a detour from the busyness of daily routine and switch gears.
Notice when you are holding your breath: sometimes we just naturally do this during some sort of exertion, when in reality the release of breath may be our greatest ally. If you notice yourself holding your breath, free the breath and resume breathing, you may notice that whatever you are doing feels easier. Practicing awareness of the breath leads to heightened observation of changes in our breath pattern throughout our daily life.
The diaphragm is the principle muscle of the breathing process. What is often referred to as “diaphragmatic deep breathing,” is more accurately described using the term abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. This because the diaphragm is always active in the breathing process, no matter the technique.
Abdominal breathing is natural during sleep, and is the way that we breathe when we first come into the world. Watch a baby breathe and witness belly breathing in action. Breathing from the belly allows a greater amount of air to circulate in the lungs than a more shallow, or chest movement method. It gets us out of the top portion of our body, and into our core, literally our center.
Practice: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. The spine should be straight no matter your position. Align your head, neck and trunk so that the breath as an easy pathway. This technique is done with your mouth closed.
Begin to focus on your breath, noticing it flowing in and flowing out. Now place your hands on your abdomen. Relax the abdominal area, attempt to soften any tension that you are holding there. Let’s now consider the breath like an ocean wave, one that will flow through the body from top to bottom. Try not to exert too much, or try too hard. This is a gentle process.
Exhale first, and get all the air out. Then inhale, make your belly big by extending it outward, feel the expansion of your rib cage. Imagine the breath wave is going all the way up to the crown of your head. Hold for a moment at the top of the breath, and then contract your belly button to your spine while slowly exhaling, imagining the breath wave going all the way down to the feet, and letting all the air out.
Your hands should be rising on the inhale and falling on the exhale. Notice how your entire body is actually engaged in the breathing process. Now, experiment with an equal part breath count, for example inhale to a count of 3, then exhale to a count of 3. If this feels comfortable, experiment with a longer count.
Another technique is to implement abdominal breathing and to extend the length of the exhalation, making it twice as long as the inhalation. Try inhaling to a count of 3, and exhaling to a count of 6.
While using breath to calm the body and mind, we create a new imprint of calm centeredness. The more that we flex our calm “muscle” the more probable it is that we can access it when we really need it. Give your body and brain a break by slowing it all down with some simple breath practice.
Lewis, D. (2011). The Tao of natural breathing: for health, well-being, and inner growth. Rodmell Press.
Lewis, D. (2004). Free your breath, free your life: how conscious breathing can relieve stress, increase vitality, and help you live more fully. Shambhala.
Kabat-Zinn, J., & Hanh, T. N. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Random House LLC.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons / Mae Chevrette