For essentially my entire life, I’ve minimized the importance of breath. As a singer, I know that understanding how to use my breath determines how long I can hold a note, how choppy or smooth my delivery of lyrics are, and even what the quality of my tone is. There is no doubt my voice is richer and fuller when I’m using my breath properly — but, still, my tendency is to gloss over my focus on breath to get to the fun stuff.
Now more than ever, our awareness of breath impacts our sense of well-being. When dealing with stress from COVID-19, a tense political climate, and ongoing social unrest, our tendency is to hold our breath or to breathe shallowly. A lack of oxygen leads to a sense of panic, which reinforces feelings of stress and anxiety.
When our breath is slow and deep, we send our brain the message that we are okay. That we are safe. That we are alive. When our breath is shallow, our body stays in fight, flight, or freeze mode. Unfortunately, COVID-19 along with other real and perceived dangers are creating a chronic sense of anxiety in people, resulting in depression, exhaustion, and burnout.
The fastest and easiest way to lift ourselves out of a state of anxiety is to focus on our breath. I personally start by simply being aware. How deeply am I breathing? Where in my body is there tension or stress? Once I begin to tune in to my breath, I create more space in my body by sending oxygen to the parts that are clenched or that are holding fear or emotion.
When we breathe exclusively from our chest, our breath tends to be shallow. I sometimes put a hand on my belly, inhale through my nostrils, and focus on filling it up with air until it pushes my hand out as far as it can. Then I let all of the air out through my mouth.
After I’ve expanded the range of my breath, I do a simple breathing exercise that both resets my nervous system and conditions my lungs. It goes like this: inhale through your nose to the count of three, hold for two counts, then exhale through your mouth to the count of three. Then, inhale through your nose to the count of four, hold for two counts, and exhale through your mouth to the count of four. Continue to increase the number of counts you hold your inhale and exhale until you reach the count of eight. Sometimes, I skip straight to eight and repeat as many times as I need to in order to feel calm. Even just three or four rounds of this breath work makes a huge difference in my sense of well-being and relaxes my whole body.
Another quick and easy exercise that helps regulate breathing is to pause whatever you’re doing and simply notice the sounds arounds you. A bird chirping. A car whizzing by. The sound of a child laughing. Once you’ve contextualized yourself in the world, imagine your breath filling all the crunched up parts of your body to widen and expand them. If you are aware that a certain body part is tighter than others, (your shoulders, for example), consciously tighten that part as much as you can and then feel yourself relax completely.
I personally don’t prefer devices, but many of my friends use apps to help both with breathing and guided meditation. There are tons of great resources that can help facilitate your learning process. Meditation may feel daunting for people who have never practiced meditating before or who don’t have a lot of time. But I assure you, there is no right way to meditate and no amount of time that is required. A little goes a long way, and it may start with something as simple as noticing your thoughts and letting them drift away.
The form of meditation I practice most consistently is called Vedic meditation. Ideally, the practice would occur twice daily for twenty minutes. Because I formally studied Vedic meditation, I was given a mantra by my teacher. You can create your own. The mantra is a simple word that does not have any meaning or associations attached to it.
In a nutshell, Vedic meditation goes something like this. Find a relatively quiet space where you are alone. Close your eyes, and whisper the mantra in your mind (not out loud). Continue to repeat the mantra for twenty minutes. If you notice that there is a running monologue in your head, gently let it go. If you find yourself making a grocery list twelve minutes into the meditation, calmly and without judgement bring yourself back to the mantra.
Some days, it is easier to focus and let go. Others, it’s a struggle. Accept every meditation as equally valuable, regardless of how many thoughts you encounter. It is all part of the process of letting go and is incredibly restorative without having to be perfect.
Enjoy experiencing the fullness of your breath this week as you practice consciously relaxing your body. ☺