“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip,
it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Focusing on the breath is both an ancient tool for enlightenment and a modern healing practice. Since we are always breathing, the opportunity to work with our breath is ever-present. This powerful tool has many practical applications. Here three ways to consciously utilize the breath are highlighted: to calm and relax ourselves; to nurture mindfulness; and as a metaphor for life.
Calming & Relaxation
Breathing is both an automatic physiological process, and one we can easily learn to regulate at will. Cultivating a habit of deep, smooth and rhythmic breathing has been shown to positively influence the heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, and digestion. Most of us naturally breathe in a deeper, more rhythmic way when our bodies are at rest, or asleep.
Since you have more control over exhalation, focusing on the outbreath can be a good place to start. To deepen your breathing, use the muscles between your ribs to push the air fully out of your body. The inhalation that follows will be fuller in response. Place your hand on your stomach while you breathe. If your hand moves outward with each intake of breath and inward as you breathe out, you probably have it right. Take a full 4-5 seconds breathing in, pause briefly, and then breathe out for at least 5 seconds. Pause and repeat for several minutes. Think only of your breathing. If it’s hard to concentrate, you might count the seconds as you exhale: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, and so on. Focusing on your exhalations a few minutes each day helps you learn to breathe more deeply.
Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed or anxious, you start to breathe in a quicker, more shallow fashion and can feel ready to “jump out of your skin”? You know the expressions: “can’t catch my breath” or “waiting to exhale?” Yoga teachings have long indicated that the breath, energy, and mind are linked, and that calming one will calm the other two. As you develop control over your breathing, you can begin to return to this deep breathing at times that you feel anxious or overwhelmed, bringing about what Herb Benson termed “the relaxation response.” This is a particularly useful tool in any performance situation, when dealing with conflict, or as an aid to concentration when fatigued.
Mindfulness can be described as an active, open awareness in the present moment, with acceptance of all that is experienced. It is the state of being awake, free from the habitual patterns and distracted delusion we often exist in. As our capacity for mindfulness grows, awareness expands until all experiences can be found in the present moment, as each moment is a doorway to the infinite.
In practicing and developing mindfulness, it is useful to have a focus to direct our attention to in the present moment, and to bring our attention back to when it wanders away (which it will, again and again). The breath is a wonderful tool for this purpose, and the central one for many types of meditative practices. To practice mindful breathing, we simply pay attention to the experience of the breath moving into and out of our bodies, right now. We can awaken ourselves to the present moment very quickly, with just a few mindful breaths. Taking the time to string many of these moments together, breath by breath, is what the practice of mindfulness meditation is all about.
Metaphor for Life
For me, the breath also serves as a metaphor for living. We do not have control over our breathing completely. We cannot stop breathing, nor continue to live if our breathing ceases. Still, we can choose to enjoy our breathing, to be aware of it and grateful for it, to practice deep and calming breathing, and to use it as a tool to influence other aspects of ourselves in healthy ways. So with life, we do not have control over the realities of suffering, illness, aging and death. Yet, we can choose to fully live the life we have right now.
“For breath is life, and if you breathe well
you will live long on earth.”
Action On Purpose Challenge
Practice the deep breathing training described above for 3 to 5 minutes twice daily. You will improve your ability to settle yourself and increase your confidence in applying this procedure. To learn more about breathing techniques, check out Mindful Breathing or Relaxation Response.
Use this method of focusing on your breathing for 1 to 2 minutes any time during the day when you need a moment of relief. Instead of tensing up in heavy traffic or waiting for an elevator, try a balanced breathing break. A few deep breaths when you sit down to a meal, before you begin to eat, can help you enjoy the food more and aid digestion.
Already able to calm your breath at will? Try the mindfulness practice of simply paying attention to the breath moving in and out of your body. Don’t try to control the breath, or judge your breathing…simply be aware of it. If your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the present moment of your breathing. Here are my favorite words to focus my mind:
“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
Thich Nhat Hanh