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Breathe Easy

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Photo by Alexandr Podvalny from Pexels

What do you do roughly 20,000 times a day but barely realize it’s happening? What is the first thing you do when you are born and the last thing you do before shuffling off this mortal coil? What do we stop when feeling overwhelmed and begin again when feeling relief?

If your answer is “check my phone” then you are probably in the right place. Because the real answer is breathe. Inhale and exhale. Becoming a better breather may improve many aspects of health, including reducing the anxiety of attachment to one’s phone.

Paying attention to the breath is a practice that can help a person be more in touch with how they are feeling, and learning a few simple techniques of guiding the breath can help calm jagged nerves, ease you into sleep, or deescalate a rising tide of uncomfortable emotion.

Learning a few simple techniques of guiding the breath can help calm jagged nerves and ease you into sleep

Begin with a simple awareness exercise. Sit comfortably or lie down on your back with the head slightly elevated. Observe your breath. Listen to the sound it makes, notice where you feel it entering the nostrils, where you feel it moving in your body, and where you feel it exiting the nostrils. What is the texture? The temperature? The pace and rhythm? Try this for ten breaths, counting in your head or on your fingers. This exercise alone can be calming and when you are ready, feel free to try some more complex techniques, described below.

Breathing techniques

When trying any of these techniques it is essential to go about them in a leisurely and easeful way. Any straining, force, or urgency is counter-productive. There is no place to go. One of the benefits of getting in touch with the breath is that it keeps you in the present. The breath can send calming signals to the body and mind, but it can also send signals of alarm, which we need when running from the bear, but not when attempting to relax.

Lying down on your back with the head slightly elevated is usually the most relaxing way to do this work, but if you tend to fall asleep, you probably need the sleep, and might consider trying at a different time of day, or sitting up comfortably if that is not possible. Do the exercises for 1-10 minutes or longer.

  1. Counting elephants. A five-second inhale followed by a five-second exhale has been shown to be a relaxing reset to the nervous system. Saying in your mind “one-elephant, two-elephant” etc, is a pleasant way to count, recruiting a creature whose grounded wisdom is something to aspire to while you find your 5-second rhythm. If five elephants feel like too many, start with 2 or 3 and work your way up one pachyderm at a time.
  1. Lengthen your exhale. The inhalation has a slightly stimulating effect and the exhalation has a slightly relaxing effect on the metabolism. Recruiting the elephants again, begin by letting there be one more elephant to your exhale than your inhale. Establish ease with that rhythm and then add elephants to your exhale, all the way to the exhale being twice as long as the inhale if it can be done with complete ease. If you struggle to elongate the exhale, trying breathing out through pursed lips as if blowing out through a narrow straw. This is good for insomnia, medical office waiting rooms, or watching Drew Pomeranz pitch for the Giants.
  1. Square breath. Once you are comfortable counting 5 elephants, you may notice that brief pauses naturally occur at the end of the inhale and the end of the exhale. Try lingering in these pauses for an elephant or two, as long as it causes no urgency in the following phase of your breath. Some breathwork traditions consider these retentions to be equivalent in significance to the inhale and exhale themselves. Square breath is a way to explore the retentions and observe the body in stillness, both while full of breath and while empty of it. You could stretch the retentions out to the same length as the inhale and exhale, again erring on the side of ease. This technique can have an overall balancing effect on the mind and body.
  1. Breathe below the navel. This can be a rescue remedy for high stress or difficult emotions. Visualize your inhale slowly moving downward into your body, all the way to below your navel. Relax your abdomen and allow the inhale to gently balloon the belly outward without force or strain.  Exhale naturally. This encourages the breath to fill the lower lobes of the lungs which signals to the body that it’s OK to rest and digest. Upsetting situations can cause the breath to be shallow and high in the chest, which we need when quick action is required to respond to the extreme stress of fight or flight mode, but not for everyday annoyances like the Wabash-Broadway light in Eureka.

Equipped with elephants and the miraculous breathing apparatus the human body enjoys, you can take more control of how the body reacts to stress by simply doing what comes naturally. So far as I know, there’s not an app for that.

Ann Constantino, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.