Updated: Feb 22
It's Valentine’s Day on Sunday! A day all about love and affection towards another. In my February is for Friendship blog, I encouraged the daily habit of reaching out to someone special in your life. Today, I wish to focus on you my friend. Self-love is the most important relationship in your life, yet we tend to forget that we too, need nurturing. The connection to ‘self’ tends to get a backseat when life gets busy. Yet how can we give when our cup is empty?
“Do something nice for yourself today.
Find some quiet, sit in stillness, breathe.
Put your problems on pause.
You deserve a break.”
– Akiroq Brost
There is a myriad of things you can do for yourself if you think about it. But nothing is as immediate, simple and rewarding (and free!) as the practice of breathing. We are born naturally knowing how to breathe deeply. Just look at a sleeping infant and see for yourself. But over time as we interact with our environment and adapt to the stressors of life, we make significant changes to our breathing patterns.
We are all in need of coming back to feeling and re-connecting with our breath. This is one reason Mindfulness Training has shot up in popularity as an effective stress management tool in the workplace (it was originally developed back in the 1970s).
So why breathing? What’s so special about it? In a nutshell, it supports you’re whole being. Literally it is ‘life breath’ - you die within minutes without it. The physiological processes involved in the very act of breathing forms a connection between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When we breathe correctly, we enhance the communication between these two systems. Each time we fill our lungs with oxygenated air the diaphragm moves downward and sends messages to both systems via the vagus nerve.
These are just some of the immediate benefits when you take a proper breath:
Reduces heartrate and lowers blood pressure
Slows down brain waves allowing your mind to calm, clear and focus
Eases your nervous system contributing to a sense of tranquility (deep breathing exercises is a proven strategy to help you get or return to sleep).
Improves lymphatic circulation (the lymph system does not have a pump like the circulatory system) which supports the elimination of metabolic and environmental toxins out of the body
Heals, regenerates and revitalizes every cell in the body with needed energy through oxygen saturation. Without it, the cell does not survive.
Restores balance within the body, mind, heart and spirit
Maintains flow of life force energy
“The breath that you just took… that’s a gift.”
– Rob Bell
The best way to maintain the healthy benefits listed above is through the practice of regular breathing techniques.
We breathe on autopilot. It is therefore easy to take for granted. Taking a moment out of your day to get out of the monkey mind and back into the body, helps shift your attention back to the present. The first step is to become more aware of how you breathe.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.
Envision and follow the breath as it moves into your body. Notice the quality and how the breath enters and leaves the body. Is it even or irregular, shallow or deep, fast or slow?
Observe where it comes to rest in your body. Is it high up in the chest, or your stomach, or low in the belly?
Place your hand on your breastbone, directing your next breath into your upper chest and heart area. Is the movement smooth, or do you feel tiny blockages and some discomfort as the air flows? Perhaps across your shoulders or along your rib cage. If you come across any aches and pains, breathe into those areas and thank your body for bringing it into your awareness. Promise to be kinder to yourself.
Move your hand to your diaphragm and allow your breath to drift towards the stomach. Feel the movement and response of the diaphragm.
One more time, lower your hand to your tummy as you allow the breath to drop down into the belly. Feel your abdomen expand and contract as the air goes in and out. Notice the stillness of your upper chest and stomach (this ‘deep breath’ or ‘dropped breath’ is the most relaxing for meditation).
“I took a deep breath and listened
to the old bray of my heart.
I am. I am. I am.”
– Sylvia Plath
So, what did the exercise above reveal about your breathing? What did you learn? Were you doing it right? Or were you able to identify areas that need improvement? When we breathe consciously, it tends to be quite different than when we go about our activities not giving it much thought.
There is a plethora of breathing exercises on YouTube and other resources available on the internet; everything from basic yogic breathing techniques to progressive relaxation. But if you’re looking for somewhere to begin, I’ve included a simple and effective breathing exercise:
Daily Breathing Exercise:
Sit comfortably - somewhere with no distractions. Do a quick body scan. Relax the muscles in your face, including your tongue. Shake out your shoulders and allow your arms to hang at your side or gently lay in your lap, palms facing upward. Your abdomen should be relaxed, your legs uncrossed and your feet approximately shoulder width apart. Close your eyes.
Inhale through your nose for five seconds and hold for five seconds, imagine nourishing, oxygenated air flow throughout your entire body.
Breath out naturally through your mouth, without effort or force for five seconds, and hold for five seconds, imagining all toxins and stressors leaving your body.
On the inhale, your belly should naturally expand outward. If you’re not sure, check by placing your hands on your tummy. If you’re doing it right your chest will barely move.
If you find your monkey mind jumping in, return your-focus to your breath.
Allow the inhalations and exhalations to happen at a natural, relaxed pace for five minutes.
"Feelings come and go like clouds
in a windy sky.
is my anchor.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh
If it all possible, get outside when you’re doing this exercise, or next to open window. Do it at any time that fits your schedule, but first thing in the morning and last thing at night is ideal. You’ll start your day centered and feeling calmer. Doing the exercise just before bed will enhance your sleep in more ways than you know.
Conscious breathing is one of the best preventative techniques you can take to counteract the physiological changes the stressors of life puts on your body. When we breathe consciously, in a cyclic rhythmical way it takes our foot off the gas, immediately interrupting the body’s response to stress.