The following is an amended version of one of my previous articles originally published in OUTFRONT magazine in 1998. As several of my colleagues and mentors have written recently, the two major situations affecting us both personally and collectively at this time, COVID-19 and the gruesome George Floyd murder that has fueled protests and transformation, share the disheartening phrase “I can’t breathe”. May each of us discover and utilize the ancient, basic concepts and techniques highlighted in this article and use them to heal us individually and this world.
Are you Stressed Out? Depressed? In Pain?
Discover how Breathing Mindfully can Help!
Breathing? Everyone knows how to breathe. In our chest and lungs, right? Did you know that breathing in that manner can actually increase tension, emotional stress and pain? Chest breathing actually causes mild hyperventilation. If you suffer from symptoms of stress, fatigue and pain, learning how to breathe mindfully can shift your experience immediately. Learning to breathe mindfully can assist you in reducing stress and tension, build energy and endurance, manage pain, and lead you on a path of healing, personal growth and transformation for your body, mind and spirit.
The active participation in creating personal health is an endeavor that more and more Americans are taking part in. Eating healthy, getting a massage and exercising are activities that are proving to be beneficial in decreasing illness and creating health. Many seem to be seeking ways to heal themselves. Breathing mindfully is found in ancient yoga practices, but is now receiving new attention as a valid way to experience vibrant health.
The definition of “health” is also being expanded to include emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components as well as physical ones. An imbalance in one’s experience affects the whole experience. That is why learning to breathe correctly and efficiently is a powerful tool you can use to achieve more balance and health in all areas of your life. And after you learn how, it’s free!
Breathing is so essential to life. If you stop breathing it literally can be fatal. The performance of breathing incorporates two actions: Inhalation, to increase and exhalation to release. Sometimes you are aware of your breathing, but most of the time you are not. Becoming more aware of your breathing can assist you in responding instead of reacting to the stresses of daily life.
When your body is under stress, your breath becomes shorter, shallower and more in your chest. If our carbon dioxide/oxygen ratios is imbalanced, your blood pressure is directly affected. This imbalance also causes your heart to work harder. Since two major physical functions are to increase circulation and to release toxins, learning how to breathe mindfully can improve your body’s functioning and health.
Inhaling and exhaling at the same rate can create balance.
Your mental and emotional functioning can also be enhanced by learning to breathe consciously. For example, the cognitive and emotional states of inspiration and nurturance can be seen as the results of consciously inhaling, and release and expression the results of consciously exhaling. The goal of breathing mindfully is to achieve a balance of full inhalation and full exhalation, complete inspiration and complete expression. Balanced breathing can soothe your thoughts and feelings, making it more effortless for you to observe and understand them. Incorporating the physical, mental and emotional benefits of mindful breathing can lead you to a more balanced sense of yourself and your health.
When the body experiences stress, the nervous system becomes automatic and out of balance. Often, our first reaction to stress is to hold our breath. I will illustrate two automatic coping strategies that we often take on when we are feeling stressed; Holding and Collapsing. In both strategies imbalanced breathing patterns emerge.
The effort involved in “holding” a feeling inside of your body tends to increase tension and rigidity in your body structure, thus restricting your breathing. If you tend to hold onto your thoughts and feelings you are most likely holding your breath.. When you are holding, you are actually not exhaling, completely. Focusing on your exhale allows your body to release tension. Altering our breathing by taking faster and deeper breaths can support deeper expression and the releasing of emotion and physical blocks. The experience of full expression can restore a healthy balance to the flow of your circulation, respiration and other body systems, including emotional and cognitive ones.
When the body is rigid or holding for long periods of time, the result is often pain. Pain is usually the experience of contraction. It is no accident that the most widely used breathing techniques in this country are used to assist in births. Where we direct our breath brings healing to that part of our body. Mindful breathing can be used for both chronic and acute pain. Monitoring the speed, quality and placement of your breathing can assist you in participating with the sensation instead of fighting them or reducing the pain by learning to soften and relax the area where it resides. Either strategy is effective, it just depends on your style.
It is a common misconception, in our fast paced world, that in order to be productive we must “buckle down” or work harder. This action again causes rigidity in the body and not only hinders your physical functioning, but also your mental and creative processes. This stress can actually inhibit your ability to accomplish and achieve our goals. Learning to breathe from our abdomen can help calm and center our emotions and mind. A relaxed body supports a relaxed mind in achieving your goals with more ease. Mindful breathing can enhance or productivity by giving you more energy and clarity and less tension.
The other automatic coping strategy to stress can be to “collapse”. Fatigue or depression can be the result of collapsing and can be seen as an imbalance by not inhaling
completely. Learning how to inhale more oxygen and expand your body’s capacity to tolerate a full inhalation will assist you in increasing your energy level. An increased level of inspiration felt in your body can shift fatigue and depression and again restore balance to the flow of energy through bodily systems. Learning how to breathe effectively will increase your experience of physical and mental energy. If you experience fatigue, by breathing mindfully daily, you will experience more energy and inspiration in your body and mind.
Your body and how it breathes and moves is a direct reflection of how you feel and what you think. When your body is relaxed your breath slows down naturally and it’s deeper and resides in your abdomen. By learning to become aware of your stressed breathing patterns and beginning to take slower, deeper breaths and mindfully shifting your breathing from your chest to your abdomen, you can restore balance and health in your body, mind and spirit, thus affecting all areas of your life. The techniques are practical and simple, it is the application that is a process of reeducating your body and mind.
Finally, the word “spirit” comes from the Greek word for breath. In western society, it is commonly believed that body, mind and spirit are somehow separate entities. In somatic psychology, the body is viewed as a container that houses our mind and spirit. So since our breathing patterns reflect the state of our mind, as we consciously slow our breathing, our minds slow down as well. Then we can hear the infinite wisdom of our heart and be moved and led by our soul. And that is the greatest benefit of breathing mindfully.
Caldwell, Chrisitne. Getting in Touch. 1998
Hendricks, Gay. Conscious Breathing. 1995