“You are not thrown to the winds, you gather certainly and safely around yourself.” – Walt Whitman
Breathing. It’s something everyone does, and to stop doing it is the quickest way to die. Yet, herein lies one of the greatest ironies of modern life: we forget to breathe.
Has that happened to you? If your answer is no, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. I had that experience recently. My sister and I went to see the new version of Little Women (if you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading and do so now). Somewhere in the middle of the film, she nudged me with her elbow and asked, “Are you okay?”
When I asked why, she explained: “You keep gasping for air every couple of minutes.”
I wasn’t having a panic attack, nor was the movie so thrilling that it took my breath away. I had simply forgotten to breathe. Until my sister pointed it out to me, I hadn’t noticed that my body was periodically screaming at me for more oxygen, forcing huge intakes of air to make up for all the little ones I’d missed. It took the help of another human to make me listen.
You might not be in the habit of skipping several breaths in a row, as I am. But are your breaths of high quality? Many people breathe too shallowly, too quickly, through their mouth, or simply without thinking about it. These habits block the nourishing effects of quality breathing.
The good news is, changing these habits takes no money and very little time, and you can do it without getting up from your chair. Yet, the benefits appear instantly and last a lifetime. Sound worthwhile?
It does to me too, so let’s begin. As with every other subject on this blog, making a change in our breathing starts with paying attention to it. Here’s what to keep an eye on:
By that, I don’t just mean to take in a lot of air. You can do that and still fail to fill your lungs. Instead, focus on filling them from the bottom to the top, letting your diaphragm move downward to open up the maximum amount of space. Your ribs should expand sideways, and your belly to the front.
TIP: When you inhale, imagine you’re filling up a water balloon. The water will hit the bottom of the balloon first, and once that part has stretched to full capacity, the level will start to rise toward the top.
Since oxygen gives us energy, our bodies naturally take in more of it when we’re under stress. ‘Something dangerous is about to happen,’ the brain says to the lungs, ‘so we’d better get ready to run.’ And we thank the brain for trying to protect us.
The problem is, stress doesn’t always mean danger. More often, it just means a demanding job, a tight schedule, or a dwindling bank account. Because our brain doesn’t know the difference, we often breathe like we’re running even when we’re not. The longer we do it, the longer we stay stressed.
It’s an automatic response, but we can drive it like a stick shift. Our breathing is the shifter. The next time you feel overtaken by stress, take over the process by slowing down your breathing. That’s a cue to your brain that no one is trying to kill you, and come payday, everything will be just fine.
TIP: When you’re about to take a deep breath, start with the exhale, not the inhale. Inhaling activates your sympathetic nervous system, the power behind the fight-or-flight response. Exhaling activates your parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the one that lowers your heart rate again once you’ve climbed to higher ground or killed the hungry lion. (As a bonus, emptying your lungs also makes room for fresh oxygen.)
Breathe through your nose
…at least when you’re inhaling. There are many reasons why people recommend this, but here’s the simplest one I’ve found: your nose is a built-in air filter. If you want the air in your lungs to be clean, you’ve got to use the filter.
Another benefit is that it forces you to breathe slower. Obviously the airways in your nose are narrower than those in your mouth, so you can’t move as much air at one time. Need to slow down? That’s a great place to start.
As funny as it is, proper breathing takes effort and focus. If we tried to make every breath as deep and slow as we’d like it to be, we’d all just be sitting around breathing all the time. And in the words of Sherlock Holmes (via Benedict Cumberbatch), “Breathing is boring.”
Still, we have to do it, and do it constantly. So take a moment periodically to notice how you’re doing it. Little by little, you will recognize patterns in the frequency and quality of your breaths, and then you’ll be in a position to change them. But even more importantly, you’ll be aware.
Breathing keeps us alive. It fills our lungs with oxygen, that oxygen is exchanged with waste gases, and that waste is expelled from our bodies to make room for more of the stuff we need. It’s really a wondrous process. When we consciously acknowledge that it’s happening, we assure ourselves that our most basic human need is being met.
Then we have the power not just to survive, but to live.