"Just Breath.." Ok so it sounds really easy, but we all know it’s not… so let’s understand why. The breath is deeply physiological, the first things we do when we are born is inhale and the last thing we do when we die is exhale. So when we get anxious and feel unsafe we often focus on the inhale – it’s a deeply rooted survival reaction, unfortunately it doesn’t really help, when we breath more we can hyperventilate, which in extreme causes fainting, it also causes you to shallow breath which can have the effect of making you feel short of breath… making things even worse.
That same will to survive can be linked to an anxiety around the exhale, to hold the breath can cause some people to feel panicked and for some (I used to be like this) even to focus on the exhale can cause a sense of unease.
Our overactive world doesn’t help, we live in a world that is all about gathering what you can and holding onto it, a house, a job, a partner, kids pick up on this as well. We are told to work hard, accumulate and what ever you do don’t let go, you could liken this sense of holding it in and keeping it together to the in-breath. Letting go, letting it all hang out or even allowing yourself to fall apart is seen as a big no no, this could be likened to the out-breath.
A difficulty with the exhale means we are not allowing the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that controls our functions of rest and digest) to switch on, leading to an even more overactive sympathetic nervous system (the part that controls our flight/fight reactions), for most of us the parasympathetic nervous system already needs a bit of a helping hand, so a good place to start is with the breath.
I know first hand how hard this can be, I had childhood chronic asthma, the only time I had focused on my breath was during an attack and as and a result as adult had huge amount of anxiety around my breath. Here are some tips to start working with your breath.
Mindfulness of breath - Lay in a comfortable position and observe your natural breath, just watch it without trying to change it. Do this for about 5 min. This is good for older kids, or adults. Good idea to set a timer.
If this is going well try…
Three part breath, anyone can give this one a go
Begin by focusing on your belly, see if you can direct your breath there
Take your focus to your ribs, see if you can feel an expansion on the inhale and a contraction on the exhale, it may time a few goes to feel any movement, it’s still useful just to let your attention rest here
Now take your breath to your chest, for some people this will be a really familiar place to breath, it might also feel uncomfortable as we are essentially encouraging a shallow breath, only stay here for a few breaths
Then put all the parts together starting with the belly, then the ribs and then the chest and see if you can find a flowing rhythm of your own for about 3 min.
This is something I do every day, once it becomes familiar (in yoga it’s thought that we need 40 days to make something a habit) it is also something that you can lean on in times of stress, it will help kick the parasympathetic nervous system into action and keep you calm.
Learning how to make friends with your breath can make a huge difference to your life - I am running a workshop for adults on November 27 at Yoga Village called How to be Calm #1: Breathe, especially for people who find breathing difficult and also for people who want to learn some pranayama (breathing techniques) that they can use in their yoga practice and their life. I'd love to see you there. To book you place click here.