“Blessed Be the Mystics for they are Drunkards of the Breath” -Anonymous
Don’t forget to breathe.
A silly suggestion— after all, breathing is something our bodies takes care of automatically. It is the most important survival mechanism for us, providing a source of life that is more important than water or food for survival in the Now. Without it, we are either struggling to remain alive or we are dead. Breath is the first thing we need to feel safe and to survive.
Breathing is the single most immediate and important survival mechanism for us, yet we tend to take the gift of our Breath for granted. I am proposing that it get its props, its due credit and our attention. I propose that we treasure it, prioritize it and adore it.
A conscious Breath is a Breath done with attention and awareness. A conscious Breath is a savored Breath. It can be thought of as a slow, slightly exaggerated Breath. It can be a Breath with the slightest intention to slow down and let it expand into every cell of our bodies.
A Savored Breath
A wine drinker might slowly savor the taste and aroma of a favored vintage. They may swish it around in their mouth, taking their time before swallowing and taking time to enjoy the aftertaste and effects. Others do the same thing with a special food or rare dessert.
Why not do so with a Breath? I endorse having a little ritual with the Breath─ a simple ceremony of slowing the Breath down, giving it attention and savoring it at various points in our day.
Please take a Conscious Breath— right now!
Lightly close your eyelids before starting. Then inhale through the nose, slowly, to the count of four. Your mouth is closed while you inhale. Let the Breath seep down into your body and feel your ribcage and tummy expanding. This is a deep, belly Breath as opposed to breathing higher in your chest. Gently hold the Breath for two to three counts and then release it in a long, slow exhale through the lips to the count of four or five. Repeat this four or five times with Awareness, each time noticing the breath and the accompanying feelings and sensations in your body.
SAVOR the experience of each Breath, knowing that it is nourishing you.
SAVOR the inhale.
SAVOR the hold.
SAVOR the exhale.
SAVOR the after effects. A savored Breath reminds us that we are safe and alive.
What Happens in Vagus Profoundly Relaxes Us
The practice of Conscious Breathing calms us and puts us in the Now. It gets us out of our heads and into our Bodies. It forms a foundation from which to learn Meditation. It allows for greater Mindfulness. It creates a stage to access so many other spiritual elements like Equanimity, Wisdom and Intuition.
It gives us a sense of agency and Freewill when we learn to direct our Breath.
Regardless of what is going on around us, we can most likely─ with practice─ direct our manner of breathing so as to manifest specific benefits needed in that moment. In particularly during chaotic times, control of the Breath may be the one and only thing we have direct agency over.
I see Breath as central to the key issue faced by most human beings: a “fight, flight or freeze” system gone amok, overzealous in its application. Designed for a time when we faced true physical threats of danger on an ongoing basis, this system seems for many to be continually stuck in the “ON” position due to distortions of what constitutes a “threat.”
In these modern times in which we live, a threat to our survival can mean the survival of our image as perceived by others or it could relate to our need for acceptance by others. It can also be connected to issues like paying the bills, which are more about survival but still not a matter of life or death for most.
When the “fight, flight or freeze” system is clicked permanently to ON, one of the results is accelerated breathing. As air is the most important thing needed for survival, when this happens, the body goes into the mode of trying to suck up as much of it as it can in a rapid manner. Then our whole body speeds up, including our mind, which begins to race with often unclear, rambling and panic-induced thoughts.
The racing body and racing thoughts won’t slow down until there is a sense of safety that is established and the Body feels that it is not under threat. Breathing slowly in the deep, belly Breath manner as described above will tell the body that it is safe. The Body, in turn, lets the mind know this and everything beings to slow down for better functioning and better decision-making. This is an example of the Mind-Body connection.
The Vagus Nerve is a network located in the core of our bodies surrounding the heart. It turns off or tones down our fight-or-flight response and can be specifically activated by slow, deep belly Breaths.
A slow, savored Breath therefore reminds our Bodies that we are safe, that we have plenty of air to breathe.
“The ego declares here I am, while the soul breathes, I Am.” -Hasna
Babies and Puppies Are Smarter Than We Are
When you see a baby sleeping in its crib or, similarly, a puppy resting, you are witnessing an example of whole-body breathing. Their breathing expands their entire mid-section, with their belly and rib cages comfortably expanding in a slow, relaxed manner.
This might be called the most natural way of breathing. In contrast, adults in the modern world tend to have short breaths mainly centered in the upper chest and even up towards the throat. This can be identified as a stress-response breath, more suited for rapid, brief explosions of power designed for fight-or-flight, not relaxation and comfort and the mental attributes that come with those states.
Haole is a Hawaiian slang term used to refer to Caucasian people, often in a derogatory manner. There are several theories as to its origins. One is that when foreigners first came to the islands, the natives, who practiced conscious breathing in general and for various specific purposes, noticed the short, chest-centered breaths of the “civilized” invaders. The tag of Haole for them meant: those without Breath, or No-Breaths. It may have had an extrapolated meaning of being uptight.
Caucasian or not, many of us are caught up in the hurry of the modern world, with our fight-or-flight system constantly engaged. We have become No-Breaths. It’s an epidemic, yet it has gone unnoticed so it has now become the norm. The solution is simple: TAKING SLOWER, SAVORED, CONSCIOUS BREATHS.
With slow, savored breaths, we can make each breath holy instead of Haole.
“Jesus and Buddha didn’t build churches or temples. They realized that when you make each breath holy, you become the temple.” -Rabia Hayek
Pranayama & Breathwork
There is an entire branch of yoga called Pranayama that is dedicated to the study, use and integration of Prana, or Breath, into physical activity, mental training, healing, spiritual growth and daily life via a variety of techniques and methods. In the healing arts in general, there is a group of individuals dedicated to Breathwork, specific breathing exercises and techniques designed to elicit beneficial mental and physical health outcomes. Many licensed counselors and mental health therapists are trained in teaching clients basic breathing techniques for relaxation. These days, this treatment option is very much part of the norm.
In my very first meditation class in 1991, from which I still have the tattered and yellowed handout, the teachers (who had Sikh backgrounds) demonstrated a number of very specific breathing techniques for acute depression, to calm a restless mind, to release fear and for relaxation in general.
Shamans across many indigenous cultures practiced and taught specific breathing techniques for purposes of relaxation, healing or even for achieving altered states. There is a long tradition of Breath as a sacred healing element. These traditions are practiced with care and under advisement if health conditions warrant it and with the basic guidance of integrating greater attention to our breath, slowing it down and not taking it for granted.
The element of Freewill is important in directing attention to our Breath, putting intention behind each Breath and also to our physical Body for the practice of conscious, savored breathing. Our Body itself can tell us much in terms of what our breathing needs might be, based upon our unique physical symptoms of tension and/or accelerated breathing. Mindfulness can track what is occurring in our Bodies, minds and surroundings at all times, catching ourselves when we are getting away from conscious breathing. A spinning mind is a call for slow, relaxed breathing, like that of a baby’s or the ancient Hawaiians described above.
In turn, our Breath supports Mindfulness and our Bodies on a reciprocal basis. Slow breathing helps keep us more mindful and helps keep our bodies out of constant fight-or-flight mode. Synchronicity between these three elements can be of great service.
Intentions of Love, Gratitude, Humility and Devotion can be entwined with the savoring of the life force that is our Breath to enhance its Healing powers, further putting us in the present moment and edging us towards Communion.
For me, Breath is NUMBER ONE. For me, it is an easy-to-access tool for centering into my Body and putting me in the present moment (Now), versus getting stuck in the wanderlust of the monkey-mind.
The Now/present moment and Breath are entwined, with Breath serving to always locate us back into the present moment.
“You cannot take a future or a past breath. The breath is always definitively in the present.”
- When you catch your mind wandering or when you feel escalated symptoms of anxiety in your Body, whatever they may be for you, this is the time for intentional, slowly savored breathing. Regardless of mental chaos or physical symptoms, preventive breathing practices can serve you well. This might mean setting aside 5-10 minutes per day to engage in specific breathing exercises. I like for people in my Meditation classes to do so once in the morning and once in the evening when first starting.
- I teach a VERY basic approach to Deep Belly Breathing:
Make yourself comfortable. Sit in a regular chair. Your spine should be relatively straight, with your feet on the ground. Do some light shoulder rolls and neck rotations for relaxation. Place your hands on your thighs, palms up. Inhale gently through the nose, allowing the air to expand the belly and rib cage. Picture how a sleeping baby or puppy breathes and follow suit. This is a low-centered breath versus a chest-centered breath. Exhale through the mouth very slowly, the slower the better.
Repeat this breathing in a slow, melodic fashion. Be aware of your body─ all points of contact and how your belly and rib cage expand. Your mind will wander and that is okay. Don’t react. When this happens, we simply shift our focus back to our Breath again and repeat that each time our mind wanders. We always return back to our breath.
At the same time, we can feel our bodies and we can be aware of all points of contact with surfaces and with our belly and ribcage slowly moving inward and outward.
You can do Deep Belly Breathing any time, not necessarily just in a formal sitting. Because I have practiced Deep Belly Breathing for a long time, I can do this very lightly in a meeting and my listening skills are actually enhanced (probably because it keeps me in the present moment).
- You can also do a simple, Four-Count variation throughout your day, sometimes at marked hours or for “triggered” events (for example, before meetings, after meetings, when a certain word is said or any time you walk through a doorway). You simply inhale through the nose for a count of four, hold for four, then exhale for four or longer. You can do this up to four times.
- Tongue-Action Variation: This is less exciting than it might sound. It involves letting the tongue ever-so-slightly flow with your Breath. On the inhale, the tongue edges up and lightly touches the roof of the mouth, while on the exhale it relaxes and expands downward. This should not feel forced in any way and should feel like a very natural flow.
- Two alternative, complimentary Breathing techniques:
Alternate Nostril Breathing – Make a quasi-Hang Loose sign with either hand by bending your index and middle finger down and inward toward the palm. Place the thumb on one side of the nose just under the bridge and the third/ring finger on the other side. This is your alternate breathing mechanism for switching back and forth in opening or closing each nostril. Practice alternating between lifting and pressing down on each side.
Start by inhaling through both nostrils without having either nostril pressed closed. The mouth is closed. Before exhaling, press down with the thumb to close that nostril and exhale through the open nostril closest to the ring finger. Then inhale again through that same open ring-finger nostril, with the thumb side still pressed down before quickly shifting to close the inhaling nostril with the ring finger at the top of the inhale. Simultaneously open the other nostril by lifting off the thumb pressure.
Keep your fingers in place while you inhale through the thumb side nostril and before closing that side and opening the other. You should always inhale through the same nostril and exhale all the way through before switching to the other side for the next inhale. Inhales and exhales should be 4-6 counts each and, once you are in the flow of the exercise, there should be alternative ring finger-thumb action for inhaling and exhaling that is slow and steady.
Eventually, once you will develop a rhythm for this exercise, it will keep your overall breathing process slower than what it is normally. You will naturally fall into the Deep Belly Breathing, being conscious of each Breath.
Remember, for this exercise, the longer the exhale, the better.
Alternate Nostril Breathing works for me as a fairly quick and effective grounding and calming technique. If I am feeling wound up for some reason, it is a go-to unwind. If I feel too wound up to meditate, I will do this technique for four to five minutes before starting. (Consult the Internet for free video demonstrations of this and other techniques discussed in this chapter.)
Ujjayi, Victory or Ocean Breath─ These are three names for the same breathing technique. It is Deep Belly Breathing-based. You start by breathing in through the nose and then exhaling through the mouth as if trying to fog a mirror 4-6 inches in front of your mouth. Making the fogging effect requires a subtle constriction of the throat. You then inhale through the mouth as if trying to fog a mirror behind your head. To finalize the technique, breathe in this same mirror-fogging manner except that now your mouth is closed and your nose is doing the inhale/exhale work.
I learned this by just practicing a while with my mouth open and not worried about closing my mouth. I recommend starting out that way before getting a rhythm and switching to closing the mouth.
- Intentional Sighing: A sigh is a sweet treat of a Breath that seems to reset our bodies out of fight-or-flight mode after a stressor or close call. They can happen naturally and, if you really think about it, a normal sigh usually feels pretty good! Adding the occasional intentional sigh throughout the day is an expedient manner of savoring a Breath and enjoying the commensurate benefits.
- Deep Belly Breathing during Sex: Integrate deep belly breathing into love-making in a manner that does not detract from it, but rather keeps one in the moment with their partner.
The techniques suggested above take practice. Demonstration videos can be found on line. I lean towards the most basic techniques.
- Practice Yoga: With physical yoga, you learn to synchronize your Breath with movements and your mental activity. Your Breath helps you relax into the posture. It is also a two-way street in that as the Body relaxes, the brain is informed that no threats are present and it will naturally regulate the Breath at a slower rhythm. Through yoga, you become more attuned to your Body and Breath in general, gaining greater overall awareness and synchronicity.
- Learn SCUBA. Scuba diving teaches one how to focus on the Breath.
Let My Breath Be Healing, Let My Breath Flow, Let My Breath Be Love.
Let Me Breathe in Peace and Healing and Let Me Exhale Love.
Let Me Breathe in Truth and Light and Let Me Exhale Love.
Let Each Breathe Cleanse My Body, Let Each Breath Cleanse My Soul.
I AM a Lover of Breath; I Am a Lover of Life; I Am a Lover of the Universe.
Lastly, simply let the sound of your Breath be your Mantra.