Hello and Happy New Year! I realize I'm a little late, but I have something for you. I didn't wrap it, though. Close your eyes! No, wait, that won't work. Okay, I'll just tell you what it is: breathing! That’s right; I’m going to teach you how to breathe. I know some of you think you’ve been doing just fine with the whole inhale/exhale thing up until now. Learning how to breathe is sort of like being “born again” - it seems we should have nailed it the first time, right? And, don’t get me wrong; if you’re reading this, your breath is working for you. For the most part, anyway. After all, you’re alive. But I think we can do better than “alive.” How about “alive and really, really well?” Why settle for alive when you could be alive and spectacularly happy? And while I certainly cannot promise nor deliver spectacular happiness, I can help you set the stage for it. How? With one little 3-syllable word. Oh, you’ve heard it before. In fact, you’ve probably seen or heard it a few times – or, rather, every single goddam time you turn around. One can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the M word (And why the hell would one do that anyway? Gross.). I'm talking about...you know...therapy's favorite buzzword until it isn't...say it with me, people: MINDFULNESS! Happiness starts with mindfulness, and mindfulness starts with being in the present, and being in the present starts with truly inhabiting your body, and truly inhabiting your body starts with…wait for it…BREATHING!
Breathing to relax or to practice mindfulness requires more intention than one’s regular huffing and puffing. In fact, some of us rarely breathe the “right” way. Children who grow up under traumatic circumstances, in chaotic, abusive, or violent environments, learn to breathe in a pressured, shallow way. That is, those of us with trauma in our past usually breathe high up in our torsos, into and out of our chests, rather than taking in air until our belly rises and exhaling until our belly falls.
The most common “mistake” people make when trying to use breath to regulate emotion is focusing on the inhale. We’ve all heard it: “Calm down! Take a deep breath!” First of all, there are no two words in the English language more guaranteed to elicit the opposite response than “calm down.” But that’s another post entirely. Let’s focus on breath. Most of us, endeavoring to take a deep breath, inhale sharply and forcefully – the inhale gets all the love – and then we just sort of half-ass (half-lung?) it through the exhale. It’s as if the breathing is over once our chests are puffy with air.
If you are trying to use your breath to soothe or calm yourself, however, it’s all about the exhale. When we inhale, we flood our brains with oxygen, therefore activating them. And it’s your brain that’s messing with you in the first place - so the last thing you want to do is turbo-charge it. It's important to take in a hearty dose of air, of course. And it is just as important to fully exhale that hearty dose of air - and then some. It’s through exhalation that we relax, not through inhalation. If we are going to inhabit our bodies and feel the present moment, we need to dial down the volume in our heads. A flood of air turns it up; a proper exhale turns it down.
Those of you who have practiced yoga may be familiar with pranayama breathing. The three steps I’ve outlined below are derived from one type of pranayama breathing. I know, I know, you don’t need an frickin' outline to breathe. What are you, 23 weeks old? That's cool - if you want to go rogue, just remember this: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE EXHALE. You want empty lungs – well, for a second, anyway. Then you want to fill them up again. Fill and spill, fill and spill, fill and spill. Once we've practiced this a bit, we'll be ready for more specific and advanced relaxation exercises. Since they all depend on mindful breathing (as does pretty much everything good), we need to breath-train first. So let’s do it:
1. With your mouth closed, inhale through your nose to a slow six count. Focus on pulling in the air via your throat; you may even find yourself making a slight whistling or humming sound. That’s good! (It’s also just fine if you don’t.) Most importantly, bring the air down into your abdomen so that your stomach rises with the inhale. Take in as much air as you can. When you think you can’t take in another cubic millimeter, take another tiny sip – pull it in through your mouth, using your throat for power, and add one more bit to that beautifully billowy belly.
2. Once your belly is distended and you can’t take in another bit of air, hold your breath for a six count. As you do, picture the fresh air making its way to every cell in your body, delivering relaxation as it does. Imagine every cell is flushed with fresh and calming energy as the air makes its way around your body.
3. Open your mouth gently to exhale. Use slight force to push out the air in a slow, steady, gentle stream. As you exhale, your stomach should flatten. At the end, when you think you are done, use those stomach muscles to push out any last bits of air, until your lungs are totally empty. Contract your stomach tightly and sputter out those last few molecules.
Once you’ve mastered this exercise, you can do miniature versions any time. It doesn’t always have to be 6 counts and totally empty lungs. With some practice, you should find yourself instinctively breathing into your stomach instead of your chest and focusing on a complete exhale. But no one does this all the time. After all, until now you were just going through your day using the automatic breathing-to-stay-alive routine. And that’s good. Alive is good. After you’ve practiced this breathing exercise for a bit, though, perhaps you'll want to aim higher. Alive is good; alive is necessary; but you can do better. Even "alive and well" is a step or two lower than attainable. How about alive and awesome? Or alive and self-loving? Alive and forgiving sounds pretty good, too. How about alive and kicking ass (with or without taking names)? Personally, there are plenty of days when I’d settle for alive and not freaking-the-fuck out, or, as some might say, alive and at peace. No matter what word you want to put after “alive and,” you'll start with your breath. It’s a new year! In with the old and out with the new! Or, in this case, in to the belly and out ‘til you’re empty. The best part of intentional breathing? You can do it anywhere. And plus, I mean, come on: Habitual breathing is so 2015.