A Simple Breathing Practice: Create Inner Calm
When I first learned how to connect to my breath, I was able to experience a place of home in my own my body for the first time in a long time. I had my first panic attack when I was in my early 20’s, followed by years of frequent anxiety and worry. And like most people who have experienced a panic or anxiety attack, I felt extreme chest pains and the struggle to breathe, and at one point feared I may even die. The function of our breath is that powerful. It can put us in a state of complete fear, but it also has the power to bring us complete calm.
Our breath is our life force. We can go without water and food for some days and still survive, but we can’t go very far without our breath. Having a breathing practice doesn’t prevent me from being anxious or worried, but it has helped me to manage it better over the years. It has allowed me to find an inner connection that has become more present within my body, than the stress outside my body.
One of the helpful tools I found when creating a breathing practice for myself was to understand the roles of inhales and exhales and how they directly are linked to two significant systems in our body: the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems are tied to two different responses of the body. When in danger the body actives the “fight and flight” response (sympathetic) and when we’re not in danger the body activates the “rest and digest” response (parasympathetic). These systems are designed to create a balance in the body. Inhales are directly linked to our sympathetic system, whereas exhales are directly linked to our parasympathetic system. Knowing this, it started to make more sense to me why consciously practicing breathing would physiologically strengthen the natural balance of the two in my body.
This knowledge also became an “aha!” moment for me when I was told to “take a deep breath” when anxious or worried. Whenever I did so I ended up feeling more stressed. I realized that when I was anxious, my body automatically responded with inhaling into my chest, breathing shallowly and, even worse, holding my breath. This unconsciously triggered the “fight or flight” mode. Trying to inhale again when told it would help, only added more stress to my body. Instead what I wanted to do in those moments would have been to slowly exhale, trying to stimulate my body’s natural calming system of “rest and digest”. But if we don’t already have a breathing practice in situations like this, it is hard to even just remember to exhale. In order for our breath to serve us in the best way possible when we need it the most, we want to start to create our breathing practice in moments when we’re already calm.
We breathe every day, without having to think about it but that doesn’t mean that we know how to use it to our advantage when we need to. Breathing practice is simply about awareness of, and connection to the breath. Starting to create a practice when we’re already in a calm state of mind allows us to establish a sense of connection of what that place of inner calm feels like to each of us. This we can use as a reference point in our body when we are eventually putting the practice into real-time practice, for example when we are anxious or worried.
We can start to create our own breathing practice at any time. And it can be as frequent as we want, even if it’s just for a few breaths at a time. The more often we check in with our breath, the easier we can start to access and connect to it instantly. Sometimes it helps to commit to a set number of breath cycles (i.e. 5 breath cycles) to complete each time in order to avoid feeling that we have not done enough or done too much. In the latter case we may feel like we’re getting dizzy. But because our breath is always within us, we will never lose the practice. If we forget and time passes, we simply pick back up again.
I invite you to start by sitting up or laying down on your back, whatever is most comfortable. Any space is good whether it is sitting on a bench, in park, subway, up against a wall, etc. You can keep your eyes open or closed. We will try to both inhale and exhale through our nose, or inhale though the nose and exhale through the mouth. This is so that the nose has a chance to clean the oxygen as it goes into our body. But if that feels uncomfortable, inhaling and exhaling through the mouth works too.
I prefer to use physical points of contact (hands) even though our breathing occurs on the inside of our body. This is to help anchor the breath into something that’s tangible, especially if we have a hard time focusing. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. This is a simple way to begin becoming aware of our breath by actively observing it. Use the two points of contact to feel movement of your chest and your belly. There is no need to do anything else here but just to notice that we are breathing.
Once we have created awareness, we can try to connect to our breath. To do so, I’m going to suggest softening both our belly and chest. Softening our belly helps give more oxygen to the lungs as it allows for the diaphragm muscle, that sits above the belly area but below the lungs, to contract and flatten so that the lungs have more space. Since we cannot technically soften the chest, we can instead think of softening your heart. We may now notice here that our breath is a little bit different (larger, wider, softer, etc.) than when we first started. We may even notice weight in our breath, or how it fills the space under our ribs. And perhaps now, there is an opportunity for us to connect to a place in our breath where it feels most calm. Try to remember what this place feels like to your body as when we’re stressed, this soft breathing is where we want to return to when we need to. This is our inner place of connection.
We want to remember that the sympathetic system works much more quickly than the parasympathetic system, as it is designed to alert the body to take action. The effect of the sympathetic system is instant. We feel immediate stress, anxiety, panic, fear, but also emotions like excitement. On the other hand, the parasympathetic system works more slowly, which is why we don’t feel instant relaxation or calm. The two systems work like the MTA subway system (when it works well): express and local. We are not be able to feel instant calm the way we feel instant fear. Therefore, there isn’t a quick way to get to our inner place of calm but to practice is more about how we get there. The stronger our connection to our soft breathing, the quicker we can access the system to help navigate our way back to our soft, relaxed breathing.
There is a saying that “when you own your breath, no one can steal your peace”. I’m not sure who originally shared it, but this is true for me. And I hope this will be true for all of us one day if it isn’t already. Your body is yours. And it already has the tools you need to practice more calm. We don’t need fancy pillows or any other instruments to practice breath. We only need our bodies. Your life force is like no one else’s—it is unique. Sometimes life is not kind, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be kind to ourselves. Finding a calm place within ourselves to simply connect to our breath, no matter what life throws your way, is a beautiful tool to own.