Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women, starts March 1. Click here for details.
Breathing properly is immediately helpful because the first thing most of us do when experiencing stress and pain – be it mental, emotional or physical – is inhibit our breathing. Try this short exercise:
Make a fist with one hand. Notice what’s happened to your breathing. You’ll probably notice you’re holding it. Now imagine breathing into the fist. What does it want to do? You’ll probably find it wants to release a little.
The fist in this exercise is a metaphor for any kind of discomfort or stress. When we are not aware, we automatically tense against the stresses of life with associated breath holding. Then follows a vicious cycle of more tension, more breath holding, more discomfort, more tension etc, perhaps physical symptoms such as headaches and tension in the neck, back and shoulders or gut problems. Many of these can be eased by simply becoming aware of your breathing patterns and consciously directing the breath into the cycle of contraction. Gradually the tension will gradually soften and the stress will ease.
Breath holding manifests in a range of ways and shallow breathing, breath-holding or over-breathing are the most common dysfunctions. At the keyboard, for example, we tend to breathe as if permanently in fight/flight/freeze mode, causing all the hormonal imbalances that come with this. You could think of it as ‘screen apnoea’. Like sleep apnoea, a condition characterised by pauses in breathing while asleep, it alters our breathing; in this case causing shallow breathing from the upper chest or infrequent breathing. Unsurprisingly, this has negative consequences for health.
You may live with a lot of perceived pressure, perhaps in the workplace, or you may just have poor posture and ergonomics; sitting for hour after hour with your shoulders hunched. Or you may just be desperate for a break! Whatever the cause, breathing-pattern disorders can result.
Breathing is the number-one physiological function that humans do, affecting your heart rate, your gut, your blood pressure, your digestion and your musculoskeletal system. Therefore, changing your breath consciously, using mindfulness and awareness, is one of the most powerful things you can do to assist your body’s physiology. It can have a massive impact on your health; reducing headaches and shoulder pain and strengthening your core.
How is your breathing at this moment? Commonly, when we are stressed, we fail to exhale completely. So, try it now:
To help you remember to do this throughout the day, stick a green dot somewhere around the house where you’ll see it regularly. Or if you work at a computer you could stick the green dot to the side of the screen. Every time you see the dot, breathe out. Relax your jaw. Breathe in through your nose and then out of your nose. Pause. Allow the next in-breath to gather naturally, like a wave gathering in the sea before it flows up the beach. Breathe in and then breathe out fully. Repeat a few times.