Breathing is necessary for life. It’s as simple as that. We can go without food and water for several days, but we can’t go without air for more than several minutes. Breathing is our most intimate companion that bookmarks the beginning and end of our lives. Given it’s constant presence and life giving nature, it’s worthy of our attention. Breathing well improves our physical health, regulates our emotions, and open doorways to the divine. Fall in love with your breath and you may even fall in love with life.
Research shows that full, relaxed and balanced breathing is vital for healthy life. Inhalation stimulates our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and helps activate the body whereas exhalation stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and helps relax the body.
While breathing is automatic and mostly happens outside of conscious control, our breathing habits are also learned. People who experienced trauma or wounding in their early attachment relationships likely developed limiting breathing patterns. Experiences in which we feel threatened and fearful tend to “take our breath away” and can lead to habitual patterns such as shallow breathing, holding our breath, taking little gasps of air, and difficulty letting go in the exhale. Tension in the stomach, chest, shoulders or back can inhibit full breathing as can a rigid or collapsed posture.
Take some time and reflect on your history and how it may have influenced your breathing. For some of you, it may have been safer as a child to hold your breath and remain very still to deflect attention. For others, you may have learned to breathe shallowly to keep from feeling and expressing emotions.
Take the next five minutes to sense your breath without trying to change it.
Is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Smooth or irregular? Which is longer, your inhale or exhale? Or are they about the same? Do your ribs move when you breath? Can you feel your side body expanding as you breathe? Can you feel movement in your back body as you breathe?
Has observing your breath changed it? What did you learn about your normal way of breathing?
For those who tend toward anxiety, panic and hyperarousal, emphasizing a long, slow exhale may help you feel more relaxed. For those who tend toward helplessness, depression and hypoarousal, emphasizing a longer inhalation may help you feel more vital and energized. The invitation is to get curious and experiment with your breath. Pay attention to what feels good, what feels nourishing. Don’t force anything. Mindfully attending to your breath and changing it’s pattern can be a resource to help you regulate emotional arousal.
Get really curious.
In yogic traditions the breath is life. We aren’t the source of breath, but rather we’re being breathed.
There is a focus on the breath as a play of opposites: human and divine, earth and sky, life and death. Inhalation is associated with bringing air down from the sky into the body, into the fullness of our human individuality. Our unique soul expression. Exhalation is associated with rise of the breath back into the heavens, a surrender into the divine emptiness out of which all arises.
The pauses at the end of our inhalation or exhalation, in particular, are considered a gateway to the sacred. Notice the stillness in the pause. Be with the stillness and open up to your bodily knowing. As our understanding of this stillness grows we come to know it as pure Presence. Emptiness. Awareness. Love. Our True Nature.
I leave you with The Radiance Sutra #4, translated by Lorin Roche:
At the end of the exhale,
Breath surrenders to quietude.
For a moment you hang in the balance —
In the fertile spaciousness
That is the source of breath.
At the end of the inhale,
Filled with the song of the breath,
There is a moment when you are simply
Holding the tender mystery.
In these interludes,
Experience opens into exquisite vastness
With no beginning and no end.
Embrace this infinity without reservation.
You are its vessel.