Our breath brackets our life. We are literally inspired by our first inhalation at birth and expire with our final exhalation. Our breath is a simple, basic tool that is always with us “right under our nose,” so to speak. It nourishes us, relaxes us, and keeps our mind and body together and present in the moment.
To understand the importance of the breath, consider that each day we may eat as much as a few pounds of food and drink as much as a few quarts of water. But we breathe roughly 23,000 times, taking in about 4,500 gallons of air. The “rule of three” is a rough estimate that reminds us that it is possible for a person to go for about three weeks without food, about three days without water, but only about three minutes without air.
Our breath is linked to and changes with our emotional state. When we are anxious, afraid, or in pain our breath is rapid, shallow, and uneven. Our muscles are tensed, ready to flee or fight, and often we are breathing through our mouth. In contrast, when we are relaxed, our breath is slow, deep, and smooth, and we breathe through our nose. All of our bodily systems are connected, and the breath is the system we can access directly. When we consciously slow our breath rate and lengthen our exhalations, we invite the relaxation response. This slows our heart rate, lowers our blood pressure, and changes the circulation and composition of our blood, thus helping our body to rest and repair itself.
Focusing on the breath is also an excellent way to keep our mind and body in the same place. Many times, though our body is here, our mind has wandered off to thoughts about the future or the past. While our mind can think about the future and the past, our breathing body can only be in the present moment because it is not possible to breathe ahead or hold on to our breath—for more than those three minutes or so. Any time we notice that our mind is gone (and sometimes it takes a while before we do), we can focus on coming back to our breath—over and over and over.
Breathing techniques are actually quite simple, but not necessarily easy if we have a habit of rapid and shallow breathing. A very basic starting point is to just be aware of the process of breathing. Inhale, and feel the expansion. Exhale, and feel the release. It can be done anytime, anywhere. In the beginning we may find that it is easiest to feel when we are lying down: letting our muscles relax and feeling our belly rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale. Putting our hands on our belly helps us to focus on the process. This “belly breathing”—also known as diaphragmatic breathing—is the expansion of the diaphragm, which causes the expansion of the belly. This is the way we were born to breathe, the way babies breathe, and how we breathe when we are sleeping peacefully.
Breathing through the nose is also important for our vitality. Sometimes personal stories are the most vivid ways to impart meaning to an idea. Many years ago I choked on a crumb. My throat was constricting, and I was starting to panic. Luckily, my co-worker was calm—thank you, Kristina—and simply told me to breathe through my nose, and in doing so I immediately felt better. I recently had the opportunity to “pay it forward” with a woman in an elevator. I saw that she had used her inhaler but was still having difficulty and suggested that she breathe through her nose. It also gave her immediate relief. She thanked me and told me that in all of her visits to the doctor, no one had ever mentioned this very simple idea.
Relaxing our muscles is another important element. When we are anxious, afraid, or in pain, our neck and shoulder muscles may tighten, causing our shoulders to creep up toward our ears. Or our belly may tighten, causing our shoulders to rise and fall with each breath. In either case, the first step is to pause the breathing process. Waiting until we feel the need to inhale will help us to inhale deeply. Pulling our shoulders up toward our ears as we inhale through our nose will increase the tension and will help us to feel the release as we exhale and let them fall back down. It’s much like the sigh of relief we exhale naturally at the end of a trying time. Using our stomach muscles to pull our belly button back toward our spine increases the tension there and helps us to complete the exhalation. This brings our awareness back to softening our belly, opening our chest, relaxing our neck and shoulders, setting the stage for full and complete cycles of breath.
Breath is life. It’s not one more thing on our to-do list or a difficult exercise that we know we should do. We don’t have to go to a yoga studio and call it Pranayama, though that can be helpful as well. Breathing is something we all do every day, and it is such an ingrained behavior that we do it unconsciously. But, when we transform our breathing into a mindful practice by doing it with the intent of nourishing and relaxing ourselves so that we can enjoy being present in the moment, we will quickly find that there is much to gain in the process.
Kristie Abel is an artist and freelance editor.