“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.”
In the wake of the wildfires, I have a new appreciation for how precious our breath is and how much I have taken it for granted. The smoke smell and haze from the forest fires up and down the West Coast settled like a blanket between us and our skies. Along with the unsettling feeling of not being able to see the sky and the stars for days on end, the challenge of simply breathing posed serious health risks. There were even times that breathing was uncomfortable indoors.
My awareness of breath has also increased lately as I reflect on everything else happening in our world. Social unrest, economic uncertainty, the negativity of election season- there have been so many moments where I found myself holding my breath. In these times I got so caught up with what was happening around me that I lost sense of how I was doing within. As I talk to clients, friends, and family, I realize I may not be alone in these experiences.
Breath is life. It is a precious gift we receive when we enter this world, and it stays with us every moment from then on, entering in and out of our body without us even noticing. Our bodies are amazing and have this autonomic nervous system that tells our hearts to beat, muscles to move, digestive systems to work, etc. This system responds automatically to inputs from our environment. It can be in modes of fight, flight, or various states of rest. Depending on how we perceive and manage what is going on outside as well as inside our being, we will be in one of those states. Hence, me noticing that I was holding my breath was a result of me perceiving the world through a lens of stress and fear, activating my sympathetic system and preparing for danger by holding my breath, tensing up, and doing all the other things that we do when facing a physical threat.
There is no shortage of stimuli in the world that can activate this component of our biology. There are many health risks we can expose ourselves to if the resulting stress is not managed. The good news is, there is a way to catch those triggers and dial back the system once it’s activated. I believe it is imperative that we look for ways to implement breathing practices and exercises to support our overall well-being as individuals, community and a society. To support my clients, one type of breathing I like to have my clients practice is diaphragmatic breathing (Video of the diaphragm). It has a lot of amazing benefits:
- Brings you into present moment
- Supports our bodies and minds to be in a calmer state
- Lowers the harmful effects of stress hormones in the body
- Can bring in core muscles to support your spine and posture
- It slows your rate of breathing so that you expend less energy
- Here are more benefits
So how does it work? To breathe from your diaphragm, imagine wrapping a towel around your lower ribs. Now inhale where you feel your body connect to the towel, where you feel it get a little tighter. Then, exhale where you feel the towel loosen around your body. Repeat a few times. See what you notice. Do you feel calmer? Are you noticing a change in your posture? This exercise takes moments.
Bringing in this practice frequently into your day will give you the support you need to be in present time, lower stress-related cortisol, and experience the health benefits of breathing more efficiently. You can take the practice to another level by imagining your favorite place in nature, or bringing to mind what you are most grateful for when you do the exercises. You may surprise yourself with what you notice.