"Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” Thich Nhat Hanh
It sounds so simple.
But it is not always easy to breathe. In moments of fear or anger, taking a breath can be difficult. Have you ever noticed that some days you feel as if you are walking around holding your breath? When our breathing is shallow and rapid the sympathetic nervous system engages. The same system responsible for the infamous fight or flight response. While this is helpful in times of danger, it is not at all helpful when you want to feel calm. Plus, shallow breathing deprives our body of the oxygen it needs, and we end up feeling tired and irritable. When we live in a state of heightened anxiety and tension (and it’s hard not to right now) our body reacts in ways that we may not notice immediately, but over time, the negative health consequences can be significant. We are not meant to live every day as if we are being chased by a wild animal. Pausing for a moment to check in with your body and your breathing is a simple way to gain control amid chaos.
While I have always been one of those “take a deep breath” people, I really began to focus on my breathing when I started practicing yoga. Pranayama, or the control of your breath, is central to yoga. In fact, most yoga classes begin and end with a few minutes of breathing. This practice centers your thoughts and helps you focus. And while the term may seem a bit old fashioned, biofeedback, or listening to your body, certainly requires us to examine where we are holding the tension and how freely (or not!) our breath is moving in and out of our bodies.
There are entire books written on breathing and breathing practices. Here are three simple breathing exercises you can do anytime, anywhere.
This technique is handy when you just need a few minutes to let go of the tension and center yourself. Sit comfortably and place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Or, lay on your back with your knees bent, placing one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. You can close your eyes or just let your gaze soften. Breathe in, feeling the hand on your belly move outward. Now exhale through pursed lips, as if you were going to whistle. Feel your belly hand move in and use it push the air out of your lungs. The hand on your chest should not be moving. Try ten breaths, enough to give you a moment to regroup.
Box, or square, breathing involves taking slow, deep breaths, and is especially useful for beginner’s meditation. Box breathing is a simple exercise that is done a pattern with four parts: inhaling, holding your breath, exhaling, then holding again, all in even counts of four.
Start by breathing out to clear your lungs. Once your lungs are cleared, breathe in for four counts and then hold your breath for four counts. Next, breathe out for four counts and then hold your breath for four counts. Repeat for up to 20 minutes. Remember to focus on the in and out as you breathe, following each breath from beginning to end.
When I am struggling to fall asleep, I find box breathing to be especially helpful. Focusing on something other than the thoughts keeping me awake and tuning in to the rhythm of the breath helps my mind quiet down enough to slip into sleep.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This one is a personal favorite. I first learned about alternate nostril breathing in yoga and find it to be one of the most energizing and at the same time relaxing breathing techniques. Alternate nostril breathing helps you regain your mental balance and focus. It has been shown to lower your stress levels and improve your cardiovascular function. To begin, place the thumb of your right hand over your right nostril and your pointer and middle finger between your eyebrows. Breathe out through your left nostril, then breathe in through your left nostril. Use your ring finger to close off your left nostril and breathe out through your right nostril. Breath in through the right nostril, then use your thumb to close your right nostril and breathe out through your left nostril. That is one round of alternate nostril breathing. You can repeat this exercise up to nine times. While alternate nostril breathing is easy, this breathing technique may not be your go-to method to practice on the bus or in other public spots!
Whatever technique you choose to practice, the benefits of conscious breathing are tremendous and often you feel an almost immediate release of tension. As you focus on your breathing, you will find that your shoulders will start to relax, and your mind will begin to clear. You will also move out of the hunched protective position we often assume, often unconsciously, when we feel anxious or attacked. Take a moment to feel your shoulders move away from your ears and to feel your feet planted firmly on the ground.
We cannot escape anxiety and tension and we should not pretend that those feelings do not exist. But we also do not have to let those emotions control us. We can