Want to know the one mindfulness tool you always have available to you no matter where you are or how you’re feeling? It’s your breathing. Yes, something you do thousands of times a day, usually without thinking about it or noticing it, is your biggest and most easily accessible resource in daily life. You might overlook it or take it for granted, not really thinking about it unless you actually have trouble breathing. It’s usually so automatic – a given.
And yet it is the most powerful, most important gift you have available to you that can affect how you experience your life. Your breath is your guide, your anchor, your centering and grounding tool, your ally that helps you get through each challenging moment.
For example, when you are anxious and your heart is pounding, a good solid slow deep breath (followed by several such deep breaths) will help you to calm down and slow down your nervous system. If you take a breath in, to the count of four and take a longer breath out, to the count of eight, focusing more on the exhalation, you help your nervous system to find a more relaxing or soothing pace – which helps you to think better. Repeat this for ten to twelve breaths and you have created a safer base to move from.
Our typical response as human beings when we’re faced with stress or fear or danger, is to fight or flee. Our anxiousness is our body’s way of gearing up for that fight or getting ready to run away. Our rapid, shallow breath promotes that experience. When we consciously slow it down, we are helping ourselves to stay present, and be thoughtfully responsive to what’s in front of us, rather than being emotionally (over-)reactive.
So, the next time you are nervous about a meeting with your boss, or feeling tension about being in a neighborhood you don’t feel comfortable in, or worried about how you’ll get everything done by the deadline, or afraid of the outcome of some medical tests that you’re having, you can turn to your breath and use it to help you respond in a healthier way to whatever you’re dealing with. By slowing it down and taking deep belly breaths – where you follow your breath deep into your belly, making it rise and fall, and noticing it doing so, you are engaging your relaxation response.
Likewise, you can use your breath to get you activated or moving in some way if what you’re experiencing has made you feel paralyzed or frozen about what to do. If you are stunned by some racially insensitive remark that somebody just made, or so overwhelmed and frozen in your tracks, not able to think clearly about what to do, or immobilized by some fear or terror that you’re experiencing, you might try breathing in such a way that you are consciously filling your lungs and trying to expand your rib cage. You can check out how this feels by putting your hands under your armpits and taking breaths that allow you to expand your upper torso rather than your lower belly.
This type of breathing can gently guide you out of that state of paralysis or freeze that you might be feeling – which is the third typical response we have to stress or perceived danger in our lives. This type of breathing which fills our lungs helps to activate or energize our ability to engage in motion or action, again offering us a kinder way of responding to the stress we might be experiencing, rather than the experience of making it worse.
Your breath is a precious gift and tool that helps you to manage your emotions and activity level, that only asks being mindful of it. Make friends with your breath, and it will always be there for you.
For a short practice to increase your awareness of your breath, please listen to the Awareness of Breath guided meditation.
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