How many things do you do nearly 8.5 million times per year? That's how many breaths the average human takes annually. It's a simple action we do on average 16 times per minute or 23,040 times per day, but how many of those breaths do you notice? How many times a day do you check in on your breathing?
The muscles involved in breathing are both involuntary and voluntary, meaning they work automatically, but can also be controlled consciously. We don't have to think about breathing in order for it to happen, but when we intentionally focus on the breath we can also affect the Autonomic (involuntary) Nervous System. You're probably familiar with the "fight, flight or freeze" (stressed) response that is due to the Sympathetic branch of the ANS. The "rest and digest" (relaxed) response comes from the Parasympathetic branch of the ANS.
When we are stressed or anxious, in fight or flight mode, our breath is quicker and more shallow. (This is good if we are in real danger - "hey mountain lion, let's chill and take slow deep breaths, OK?" Um, no.) The breath should be deeper and slower when we are resting and relaxed, though this is often not the case in our high-stress world. By consciously slowing down the breath when it is involuntarily (and unnecessarily) fast and shallow, we can begin to shift from "fight or flight" into "rest and digest." This is why bodywork, breathwork and regular meditation are all effective for decreasing stress and anxiety (fight or flight), because we are restoring balance by increasing the Parasympathetic response. Though it may not take away the anxiety or stress, we do have the ability to manage those feelings just by using conscious breathing!
So take a slow full breath now. Go ahead, really focus on it. Count the number of seconds it takes to fully inhale and to fully exhale. It doesn't need to be a really deep breath, just slow and full. Repeat 3-5 more times. Feel calmer? Or perhaps more energized or focused?
In my work, I see people who are so habituated to breathing quick and shallow, that when I ask them to take a deep breath their body doesn't even know how to do it. If this is you, breathwork can be immensely helpful to retrain your body. You may want to schedule a few bodywork sessions to free up the muscles of breathing and create space for more breath.
When I really want to focus on getting more complete breaths without feeling like I'm inhaling too much air (light-headedness is not the goal), I do the following exercise.
Breathwork Practice (just one of many methods)
- Get comfortable so that your belly and lungs can fully expand. You can do this sitting, standing or lying down.
- Notice how your body and mind are feeling.
- Imagine that you are breathing through a straw, "sip" inhale for a count of 4.
- Hold at the top for a count of 2.
- Exhale more slowly than you inhaled, for a count of 6.
- Hold at the bottom for a count of 2.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
- Check in with how your body and mind feel now.
Like most healing practices, breathwork needs to be customized to work for you, so play with the count until you find the right rhythm for you. You should feel relaxed, not light-headed or over/under-oxygenated. Count slower or faster, or try different counts such as inhale 2, hold 1, exhale 4, hold 1. Or perhaps you need longer breaths, so inhale 6, hold 2, exhale 8, hold 2. The important thing is to breathe slowly, comfortably and mindfully. The counting helps to focus the mind and create a rhythm.
- Pay attention to where and how you are breathing by using your hands to feel your breath move. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. (If you want the energy balancing bonus, right hand goes on belly, left hand on chest.) Try to breathe into both areas feeling them rise and fall. Also try placing your hands on the sides of your rib cage and feel that expand up and out.
- If you're new to breathwork, start with just a few reps, maybe 5-6 breaths. Slowly work up to making this a daily practice as part of your morning or evening routine. Aim for 5-15 minutes.
Breathwork can be particularly useful in the moment when feeling stressed or anxious about an upcoming event or running late. Focus on your breathing a few times to bring a balanced, relaxed pace and remind yourself that everything is OK.
If breathwork isn't helpful for you, try expressing gratitude that you're not actually being chased by a mountain lion in this moment. ;-)