When we feel stressed or anxious, it’s not uncommon for our breath to become shallow—we may even feel like we’re holding our breath. As you can guess, this doesn’t help when trying to relieve anxiety. Sarah Bowen, the author of the new bookSpiritual Rebel,lets us in on an easy way to engage with our breath and become aware of our inner state. Whether you’re out and about or sitting at a desk, you’ll be able to do this exercise and hopefully, find yourself in a more peaceful state.
Most of the time, we breathe without thinking about it. Our bodies have the amazing ability to keep us breathing involuntarily without much effort. Ordinarily, we only spend time consciously thinking about our breaths if we have health problems (like COPD, sleep apnea, or bronchitis) or are super active (perhaps running a 5K, getting immersed in hot yoga, or summiting our favorite mountain).
But not all animals have the luxury of subconscious breath control. For example, dolphins and whales are mandatory conscious breathers. Dolphins use their mouths for capturing and eating prey, and their ingenious blowhole for breathing, typically four or five times per minute, when on the water’s surface. Unlike humans, dolphins must think about inhalations and exhalations. Dolphins never fall completely asleep, and part of their brain remains alert at all times for regulation (and to keep one eye open for predators).
So what happens if we get our metaphorical dolphin on and consciously look at our breathing? A lot.
Healthwise, research shows that slow, focused breaths can lower stress and anxiety, improve coping skills, help people deal with substance abuse, improve our general sense of well-being, and boost our self-esteem. Spiritually, conscious breathing can help slow the mind and get us in touch with a more expansive consciousness. In fact, there’s a long lineage of this spiritual practice—mainly out of the Buddhist, Taoist, and Vedic traditions—to connect us to our vital life force, also known asQi(pronouncedchee), orprana.
The following exercise is based on a Zen counting meditation. It’s pleasantly—and positively—addictive.
- Silenceyour phone, computer, or anything around you that might ring, ding, or vibrate.
- Sit so that your back is straight,allowing for natural movement of the breath within your body. No, you don’t need to invest in a fancy meditation cushion. A chair works just fine.
- Make your eyes comfortable.This practice can be done with your eyes closed, or with your gaze softly resting on a spot on the floor, a live plant, or a shimmering candle. It’s important to keep your eyes resting rather than staring sharply, looking around, or otherwise bringing distractions to your mind.
- Pay attention to your breath.Notice your belly rising and falling, the movements in your chest, and the passing of thoughts as they come and go, like clouds across the sky.
- Count each breath silently in your mind.At the end of the inhale, countone. At the end of the exhale, counttwo. Continue until you get tofive. If you hitsix, notice that your mind has wandered, then gently pull it back toone. If you find yourself wondering what is for dinner, gently pull yourself back toone. If you feel irritated at the noise coming from the room next to you, start again atone. Avoid judging the wandering. It’s totally normal. Our minds are made to think, and they will think—around 50,000 thoughts a day! Just direct yourself to countingone, two, three, four, five.
- Feel your awareness sharpen.After you’ve been counting for a while, you may hear sounds around you more distinctly, you may feel the temperature (or weather) more precisely. Stay with the breath.
- Return to your day slowly.When you are done, avoid jumping up quickly to check your texts or social feed. Move as if your body is on half speed, easing into activity slowly and deliberately.
- Repeat throughout the day.How often? Whenever you need a little peace. Breathing addictions are healthy addictions.
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