Breathing. It’s something that we do without even thinking. It’s almost magical how our lungs fill up with oxygen and release carbon dioxide up to five hundred million times in our lifetime. Most of the time, we are unaware of our breath, or the power that it can have in our most stressful moments.
With the last few days of 2015 melting into a new year, we can find ourselves easily overwhelmed. Perhaps this was your first holiday season spent alone, without a loved one or maybe your expectations for this year have failed to produce all you had hoped? Have all the festivities and gift giving emptied your wallet, leaving you afraid to open the impending credit card statement you know is sure to arrive in January?
It’s during these apprehensive times that taking control of your breath can reduce stress and relieve your anxiety. Take five minutes, three or four times a day, to observe the following practice of deep breathing. You will be very glad you did.
First, sitting on the floor or in your office chair, close your eyes and focus carefully on your breath. Feel the air going in and out of your lungs. Notice how you are breathing. Are you breathing deeply? According to Christina Brown, author of The Book of Yoga, we often do not exhale as completely as we should, and rush to inhale our next breath too quickly. By focusing on being intentional with our breathing, we allow our bodies to slow down and relax.
As our breathing slows, so does our heart rate. Our digestive system has a chance to reset, and our adrenal glands stop secreting the “stress-related hormone” cortisol. Finally, our mind has the ability to unplug, shut down and rest, focusing only on the breaths we take in and release back into the universe.
In the traditional practice of yoga, the ancient teacher Patanjali taught that there were eight limbs of yoga. These eight limbs, or pathways, are meant to teach one how to live a life of meaning. The fourth limb of Patanjali’s teaching is Pranayama breathing. This purposeful, focused breath is said to give regulation to the body and awareness to the mind.
While you are sitting and focusing on your breathing, begin this simple exercise. Inhale deeply, and hold that inhalation for a few seconds. Begin to exhale slowly, through your nose. Continue exhaling, longer than you think you can, as you gently push the air out of your lungs. Pause again, just for a moment, before inhaling once again.
This exercise is called ‘square breathing’ or ‘4-square breathing,’ as some proponents suggest you count to 4 as you inhale, hold, exhale and hold again. As you breathe in, your diaphragm should extend as your lungs fill with air. And on your exhale, your diaphragm should relax. You can place your hand on your abdomen and feel your diaphragm working. You may have to concentrate at first to feel your diaphragm moving in and out. As we become more conscious of our breathing, we will begin noticing when we are overly stressed and not breathing as deeply as we should.
Not only will you reduce stress levels by focusing on your breathing, but you will also be taking in rich oxygen for your mind, while eliminating carbon dioxide, a gas your body produces but does not need. Oxygen is incredibly important for our brains to function properly and as you go about your day, including this type of breathing reduces the chances of brain fog, while giving your brain the vital energy it needs for maximum productivity.
Learning to unlock the power of your breath gives you an opportunity to lessen personal stress, while regulating your own body’s functions.
Throughout your day, take a few minutes to give yourself the gift of “breath.” A time to relax, reset and renew your body, mind and soul.