Breathing Essentials

This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website, and is reposted here.

As we grow and change, we must retain some flexibility to help us deal with new situations.

Pink Pearl Island-1

One of the easiest techniques to encourage both images and relaxation is use of the breath to quiet the mind’s chatter.

When I was first introduced to imagery techniques in 1977, the instructor talked about breathing “properly,” implying that the way I was doing it wasn’t correct. However, she didn’t then go on to explain the why’s and wherefores of the “right” way. Since I was clearly benefiting from my imagery work, I assumed the specific breathing technique wasn’t a big deal after all.

Then, a few years later, I met a woman who sings in both Chinese and American operas. Needless to say, she was a fascinating woman. When she demonstrated some breathing techniques, I could see that I was missing out on a lot of good, deep breaths — and that learning to breathe correctly wasn’t hard at all.

Now that I know the importance of breathing techniques, I believe it is important to learn breathing essentials because one of the simplest and most common ways to begin an imagery exercise is to pay attention to your breath. Once you learn how to relax through breathing correctly and through focusing on the breath, you will discover that breath is a wonderful trigger for relaxation if for no other reason than that it is always available.

Getting Back to Natural Breathing

We are all born with the natural ability to breathe correctly. Just watch a sleeping baby. Her chest doesn’t rise and fall nearly as much as her stomach. That is because she hasn’t yet been introduced to the Western idea that the way to breathe deeply is to puff out her chest and pull up her shoulders. She is just breathing as nature intended.

To understand what nature intended, it is useful to understand how the diaphragm works. This is the sheet-like band of muscle separating your chest from your abdomen. When the diaphragm relaxes and moves up into the chest cavity, the lungs contract and air is forced out. When the diaphragm expands, it moves down into the abdominal cavity, pressing on the lower organs. While you are unlikely to give this automatic process much thought (just as I didn’t think about it for decades), you can easily and unconsciously affect the volume of air you take in and release.

If you use the full capacity of your lungs by breathing properly, your blood receives the oxygen it needs, waste products are removed from your system, digestion is improved, and your organs and tissues become nourished and strengthened. Equally important, oxygenated blood helps prevent anxiety, fatigue, muscle tension and depression. Correct breathing, therefore, contributes greatly to a sense of physical and emotional well-being.

Correct breathing also explains something about which I’ve long been fascinated: Why doesn’t an actor’s chest seem to move when he’s been shot and is supposed to be dead. If he breathes correctly, he can lie there for a long time and get all the oxygen he needs without moving his chest. Practice the suggestions in this chapter for breathing and you’ll soon be all to get all the oxygen you need.

Practice Optimal Breathing

A very simple test can show you whether you are breathing as nature intended. Sit up straight in your chair (or lie flat on the floor or a bed) and place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your stomach. Then several deep breaths. If your right hand moves more than your left, i.e., if your stomach rises more than your chest, you are already breathing as nature intended. However, if your chest moves up and down more than your abdomen, you have forgotten what nature intended and will need to practice breathing abdominally (sometimes referred to a diaphragmatic breathing) if you want to optimize your imagery experience.

An easy way to practice good abdominal breathing is to place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your abdomen and imagine you have a balloon inside your abdomen. Each time you breathe in, imagine the balloon fills with air. Each time you breathe out, imagine the balloon collapses. Using your right hand, you can even push your abdomen to squeeze as much air out of the balloon as you possibly can. Practice allowing the balloon to expand and contract until it feels more natural.

Use a “Signal” Breath

One of the techniques used at the Academy for Guided Imagery, where I received some of my training, has you shift focus from “outer” activities in order to get ready for “inner” activities by taking two or three special breaths.

First, you inhale deeply through your nose, placing your tongue against the roof of your mouth and relaxing your throat much as you do when you yawn. After you have inhaled as much air as possible, hold your breath for a moment and change the position of your tongue so that it rests behind the lower teeth. Then open your mouth slightly and exhale gently, as though you were slowly blowing on a candle. Repeat this several times
As you do this, you may want to say to yourself something like “I am relaxing” or simply the word “relax”. If you are particularly worried and anxious about something, you might also want to say to yourself, “For this moment I let go of the past,” and “For this moment I let go of the future.”

These are often called “signal” breaths because, after using them only a few times, they can act as powerful triggers or signals to quickly induce a relaxed state and ready you for deeper work. After you have taken these signal breaths, return to your normal pattern of breathing, allowing your body to relax even more.

Use Abdominal Breathing to Reduce Stress and Pain

A common reaction to stress is a tendency to take short and shallow breaths, and sometimes even to hold the breath. When you do this, you may unconsciously feel that by holding your breath you can control the situation. The reverse is true. You are likely to have even greater stress and anxiety, to say nothing of having less oxygen. To counter this tendency, when you experience stress, discomfort or pain, consciously stop and pause, noticing how you are breathing in response to the situation. If you are taking short, shallow breaths, gain greater control of the situation by taking slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm.

Focus on what is happening at that moment and on how you are feeling right then, not on the future and whether or not the stress, discomfort or pain will get worse. Remind yourself that by taking slow, deep breaths you will almost always bring your distress down to a more manageable level, even though it may not be eliminated completely.

The Sigh That Refreshes

Until I learned to breathe correctly, I could often be heard sighing or yawning. I didn’t know that my body was reacting to a lack of oxygen and that I could remedy the situation (and improve my state of mind) either by taking a deep abdominal breath or by using the sigh consciously. (Okay, I still yawn now and then when I’m tired, but not nearly as much as I had previously.)

Here is how you can turn your sighs and yawns into a relaxing, mind calming experience. Without particularly thinking about inhaling, just let yourself sigh deeply. As you do this, let the air rush out of your lungs as you let out a sound of deep relief and then simply let the air come back in naturally. It is particularly helpful if you do this up to a dozen times or more, encouraging yourself to feel completely relaxed. As you do deep abdominal breathing on a regular basis, however, I suspect you will sigh a lot less.

Use Breath To Bring Yourself Into The Present Moment

Every spring I go at least once to the desert here in Southern California. There I take pictures of blossoms that seem particularly beautiful because they contrast so starkly to the plant that produces them. So I relish being there and feeling a part of this dry, angular landscape.

But there are people who find it difficult to appreciate, let alone enjoy, being where they are. Their minds are on another place or another thing. Instead of taking pleasure in what is right in front of them (such as looking at a prickly plant with an exquisite flower), their mind is hurrying on to the next destination (perhaps assuming they will like it better when they are looking at the lush undergrowth of a deep forest). Yet when they get to the next place, they are thinking about the next place they have to be, and the one after that.

Yet living well means being completely comfortable wherever you are, wherever that is — and thoroughly experiencing what you are doing, whatever that may be. Life doesn’t always present us with easy, carefree days. Sometimes we have to deal with some pretty prickly circumstances. Yet even there we may find beauty, if we only look.

The simple “Be Here Now” script below will, hopefully, help you live more completely in each moment — whatever your circumstances and wherever you find yourself — instead of constantly looking forward to the next activity in a busy life.

NOTE: It is not absolutely necessary for you to breathe “properly” in order to benefit from this exercise, just as I was able to enjoy imagery for many years without knowing how to breathe properly. And if there is something in your makeup that resists using the breath for relaxation, that’s fine. The next article has lots of relaxation techniques that will work well even if you don’t combine them with breathing.

A Guided Imagery Exercise

Be Here Now

As you begin this exercise of being in the moment, I invite you to gently close your eyes and take a deep breath . . . and, as you slowly exhale, let go of what happened just a moment ago, right before you took a deep breath. Just be here now, in this moment. . . . And now, take another deep breath and, as you slowly exhale, let go of what you plan to do when you are through with this brief exercise. Simply be here now, in this moment. . . .

As you return to your normal breathing pattern, let each “in” breath be a reminder to be here now, doing this exercise . . . and let each “out” breath be a letting go of whatever you are holding onto in the past or whatever you are worried about in the future. . . . Take several moments to just be aware of the present moment. . . .

As you let go of the past and the future, you may want to use your breath to remind you to be aware of the present. You can do this by realizing that no matter how hard you try, you cannot take a breath right now (no matter how full you fill your lungs) that you can use five minutes from now. Similarly, you could not have taken a breath five minutes ago to use right now. Each breath can only be used for one moment in time. And so, allow your breath to remind you to be here now. . . .

And now, in this moment, feel your back resting on your chair and notice what that is like. . . . Continuing to focus awareness on your body, notice your feet and how they feel in your shoes or, if you aren’t wearing shoes, how they feel when you wiggle your toes. . . . Now turn your attention to your hands and what they are doing. Are they resting on your lap or on the furniture or do you have a hand on the keyboard or on the mouse?. . . How does your chest feel right now? . . . How does your stomach feel? . . . Right now, at this moment, allow yourself to be as fully aware of your body’s sensations as you are able to be. . . .

Be here now, quietly and naturally breathing each breath in the moment it is breathing. . . . And now stretch your body and become aware of where you . . . and gently open your eyes, noticing that you can continue to be here now, in this moment, letting go of past and future, willing to experience this moment in time which has never been before and will never be again. . . . In other words, BE HERE NOW because you don’t have any other “now.”

As you went into this exercise, I hope you noticed that when you focus on one thing, in this case your breath, your mind is prevented from thinking about other things — like whether it’s going to rain on the picnic tomorrow, how you will pay this month’s bills, whether you’ll ever get that job done that’s been taking a lot of your time, what will happen because you had a conflict with a neighbor, and all the other thoughts that contribute to stress. You can’t think of two things simultaneously. You can think of one thing and immediately think of another (the mind chatter that keeps you from living in the moment), but you can’t think both at once.

By choosing to focus on the breath, and the fact that we only have one breath at a time, you are preventing other thoughts from taking hold, which, as I said earlier, will disconnect neurons from old thoughts and make way for new neuronal paths.

This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website.
© Copyright 2008, Revised 2012, Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT

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