In December, 2019, breath was the subject of that month’s post also.
In it, I described how to practice the technique of “4-7-8” breathing (“Relaxing Breath”), a technique that is immediately effective in triggering our parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system designed to calm us down) on the spot. When practiced regularly, 4-7-8 breathing can help with many conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, managing cravings, and controlling or reducing anger reactions.
Then, on January 25, the first case of COVID19 was diagnosed in the U.S. Then came George Floyd’s murder-by-suffocation at the hands of police on May 25, followed by the wildfires of late summer and early fall which took the Air Quality Index in many parts of Oregon and California (including where I live) to over 400 for days at a time: a score of 100 points higher than the 300 points required for the air to be considered hazardous to breathe.
In short: little did I know, a year ago, how very much I breathing would be on our collective minds during all of 2020!
And as I pause to reflect on the year behind (breathing a little easier for the moment, with both the tension of the fires and of the election behind us, for now), I realize how crucial a role my own mindful breathing practices have played in supporting, stabilizing and sustaining me—as they did many others close to me— in meeting the mental, emotional and physical challenges of the year we have just been through. I engaged those practices daily, and came to depend on them gratefully, whether to settle a feeling of panic when the AQI was “hazardous” for yet another day, or to cope with grief and fear in contemplating the massive and individual suffering that COVID, violence, injustice, and the wildfires were heaping on so many.
So as we enter the challenges and hopeful possibilities of a new year, I wanted to come “back to the breath” (as I regularly remind myself and others, leading a yoga class), breath itself being something that I imagine all of us take for granted less than we did a year ago.
If you, like I, have become even more interested in using breath to cultivate well-being and to manage stress?, wellness coach and (self-described) “leader in the field of stress-mastery” Cynthia Ackrill, M.D. (https://www.cynthiaackrill.com) recommends the free apps, “Breathwrk” (IOS only, but there are other good ones for Android devices) which offers a whole array of breathing exercises for various conditions and situations. And recently, one of my clients introduced me to the “Headspace” app, which, while not focused exclusively on breath (and limited in what’s offered through the free version) is a treasure trove of short and long guided meditations and practices to effectively calm an anxious mind.
Meanwhile, here are a few easy and effective “on the spot” breathing exercises for various mind-body states:
To “simmer down” when you’re feeling angry: shift your focus from your mind’s stories (i.e its justifications) for your anger, setting these aside (you can always come back to them if you want to make yourself re-miserable!) and just focus on your breathing. Purse your mouth slightly as though you were pursing it around a straw. Then simply exhale slowly through the imaginary straw, tightening your belly on the way to push out all the air. Then take a couple of normal inhalations and exhalations, then do the slow exhale again. Practice this for two or three breaths, and repeat if needed.
To boost your energy: In yoga practice (as well as in Qi Gong practice), the simple-to-do “breath of fire” can be used to generally energize and literally warm the body. While breath that is focused on calming the body does so by lengthening the exhale (as in the technique above), energizing practices work by lengthening the inhale and shortening the exhale, often by forcing the exhale out in short bursts. The “breath of fire” is an especially effective way to quickly pep you up, and even to get yourself up and out of bed more easily if you are not a “morning person.” How to do it: Breath deeply in through the nose, then forcefully contract your lower belly to push out the exhale quickly with a “whoosh” sound through the mouth. Do this for three breaths in a row, then check for how you are feeling, and repeat if necessary. (Important note on this one: if you have vertigo, hypertension or cardiac irregularities, check with your health care practitioner first!)
To sharpen your thinking and balance your mood: Just as lengthening the exhale calms the body/mind while shortening it energizes, rhythmically equalizing the length of inhalations and exhalations balances the mind and body, stabilizing heart rhythms and mood, and focusing and calming the mind. How to do it: Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest, as a way to make sure you are fully “filling the glass” of your breathing apparatus from belly to chest. Then Inhale slowly through the nose to the count of 6, and exhale through the nose at the same rate, also to the count of 6. Do this for about 5 minutes at a time at first; as you become more comfortable with this practice, you may extend the time to 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch.
With so much uncertainty about the future (the future is always uncertain, but aren’t we so much more aware of that in our daily life, now?) and with our individual repertoire of “feel-good” strategies (gatherings with family, exercise classes, the simple and spontaneous hug between friends) constrained by our primary responsibility to protect each other by physically distancing, how lucky it is that effective help with both coping a thriving is as close as our breath!