The Wisdom of the Breath

“To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and our minds.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

This week, this month, this eclipse season, I’ve been taking a deep breath.  A lot of them.   As a world and a community, a deep collective breath seems much needed.  And when we breathe –  deeply, slowly, and intentionally, things shift.  If the eyes are the gateway to the soul, then the breath is the gateway to our nervous system.  It is the first thing we do when we are born, and the last thing we do on this earth.

As violence rages across the world in the form of wars, a horrific mass shooting in Maine, and even two murders in one week in my small, usually peaceful town of Durango, Colorado, emotions are running high everywhere, and things seem chaotic, and not making sense.  I am seeing people show up raw, tired, teary and feeling heavy.  I’ve been sensing an edge, like a precipice.  What is on the other side, I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is a time for us to slow down, to downshift.  To take a collective breath. To reconnect with ourselves, and with each other.

Things are moving fast. When our nervous systems are overloaded, we can’t think clearly.  When we are feeling scared, or anxious, or angry, or on high alert, it is hard to process any of it.   But one thing we can do is to just breathe.  The simple act of taking a deep breath calms our nervous system ever so slightly.  Try it.  Then take another.  As we expand our rib cage, and take a deep belly breath, we can feel ourselves start to inch back from that edge.  A little lightness begins to show up, filing in the space where the heaviness has been. 

Inhale.  Hold. Exhale.

There is movement, if even in the moment it is just the breath.   Feelings transmute.  As we breathe, calm and settle, clarity begins to seep in.  We begin to see what maybe we couldn’t before.  Or maybe an idea begins to emerge, or a solution, or just taking the edge off.

One technique I like when feeling overwhelmed or to just get centered is called box breathing.  Visualize a box, so 4 sides, and breathe in 4 counts.  Inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, and hold for 4. Do this three times, noticing how you felt before doing it, and after.  

When we are stressed or anxious, we actually hold our breath, and don’t even realize it.  Breathing shallowly, or holding our breath constricts movement, and can actually make us feel more anxious.  When we are sick with a cough or cold, or have an injury to the spine or rib cage, taking a deep breath can be hard, or painful, or feel almost impossible.  In this case, try placing your hand on your solar plexus, above your belly button and just below where the ribs start to separate.  Visualize the area between the ribs and diaphragm, focusing on the movement of the diaphragm every so slightly, not the ribs, or just visualizing the lungs expanding. You can also hold a pillow to the rib cage or chest while doing this.

I meditate and do yoga, and I know that’s not for everyone.  However, they are both accessible to everyone.  You do NOT need to be able to clear your mind or not have thoughts to meditate.  If you can breathe, you can meditate.  Focus on your breath.  You do NOT need to be flexible to do yoga.  If you can breathe, you can do yoga. The word “Yoga” means  to yoke, to join – think connecting the body with the breath.

If we all take a few moments to focus on our breath, everyday, and especially when we are feeling it all, you will notice a shift.  Stress levels reduce, the immune system strengthens, we may sleep better, think better, and feel better.  Let’s all take a collective breath together, breathing in what we want to fill ourselves up with, and exhaling out that which we are ready to let go of.  We settle, we slow, we connect with ourselves.  And that is the first step in feeling connected with others is to first, connect with ourselves.  And it can be as simple as starting with a breath.

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