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Your Questions Answered: What the Breath has to do with Mindfulness and Stress Management

If you’ve ever taken a class with me you know that I’ll cue the breath in sync with movements during yoga, and that my guided meditations are heavily focused on breath and breath-awareness. Students follow along and experience the benefits, often accepting them at face value, but one of the most common questions I get […]

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If you’ve ever taken a class with me you know that I’ll cue the breath in sync with movements during yoga, and that my guided meditations are heavily focused on breath and breath-awareness.

Students follow along and experience the benefits, often accepting them at face value, but one of the most common questions I get after class from curious, analytical minds is this:

“What does the breath have to do with anything?”

It’s a great question, and the answer gets right to the heart of mindfulness, opening up a practical conversation that covers important points on present-moment awareness, accessibility and even the central nervous system. So, let’s get into it. 

1. For starters, our breath is always with us. It is available to us anytime, anywhere.

Whether or not we’re paying attention, we’re always breathing in and breathing out. This constant presence makes it a fantastic place to direct and rest our attention in times of stress, distraction, overwhelm, and even in times of wonder, appreciation and gratitude. We can access our breath whenever we need something to focus on. Using the breath as an object of meditation means mindful moments can happen any time, anywhere.

2. The breath is a formidable object of meditation. In every moment, the breath possesses infinite qualities to observe and connect with as an exercise in present-moment awareness.

There are so many different aspects of the breath for us to focus on. We can notice its temperature, observe how it moves through the body, follow the pace of our inhales and exhales, listen to the sound it makes, feel it across our teeth, how different shapes of our face can change its qualities… the list goes on. This abundance of options gives us an always-available place to direct our mind and attention that is both simple, yet engaging.

3. Using the breath as an object of meditation gives the wandering mind an accessible concrete task—to keep its awareness on the breath. 

You may have heard the myth that meditation is a practice where one thinks of nothing, where we empty the mind. In reality, it’s nearly impossible to think of nothing, and most of the time an attempt to will thoughts and emotions out of the mind only causes more frustration and stress.

Instead, we need to give our brains an alternative to hyper-focusing on the incessant “chatter” that we all experience. This chatter, comprised of thousands of thoughts per day, includes an internal monologue of wants, likes/dislikes, anxiety, stress and negative self-talk. When we give the mind an object of meditation, like the infinite qualities of the breath in the present moment, we are effectively moving our attention away from these chatter-like thoughts and prioritizing our awareness on the object.

When you’re having a cup of coffee, waiting in traffic or even sitting at your desk and notice the mind wandering off or attaching to negative thoughts, simply being aware of your breath can anchor you to the present moment. The opposite is also true: you can use the breath to savor a moment or use it to shepherd your attention back to a particularly important matter or productive state.

So, the next time you sense your mind wandering or you’re feeling stressed, or you want to anchor your focus, ask yourself a few simple questions:

  • What does my breath feel like and sound like?
  • Where is my breath coming from?
  • How is my breath interacting with the body?

Asking yourself the same set of questions each time can bring you back to center in a mindful way. 

4. The breath is directly correlated to the central nervous system, and acts as a link between the conscious and unconscious.

When you’re stressed or anxious, the breath tends to present itself as fast-paced and even shallow, constrained by the tension in the body; deep breaths may feel like work. If you’re relaxed, the breath may move slower but feels free and unencumbered; deep breaths feel easy and natural. 

If experiencing this correlation first-hand isn’t evidence enough, there are several clinical studies that have shown that slow, deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response in the body. A few minutes of relaxation breathing in which the exhales are drawn out longer than the inhales can lower blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and reduce cortisol and muscle tension.

One simple relaxation breathing technique that we offer in Work From Om® curriculums is 1:2 breathing, where the exhales are drawn out exactly twice as long as the inhales and the length of each cycle is gradually increased.

The first few rounds will probably seem easy; you won’t feel much different than before you started the meditation practice. Once you get up to a 4/8 or 5/10 breath it’s not so easy. The amazing thing is that by focusing on this challenging breathing pattern you’re moving the attention away from anything that is bothering you, away from stress. You’ll start to notice any tension melt away as you exhale for those longer counts. 

This breathing exercise is great to combat acute anxiety or stress, times when things feel really tense, you may notice a tightness in your chest and perhaps your breathing is more shallow than usual.

Let’s try some relaxation breathing:

  • Begin by breathing in for a count of one
  • Then breathe out for a count of two
  • Repeat 2-4 times

Pause. Next we’re going to double the counts:

  • Inhale for a count of two
  • Then exhale for a count of four
  • Repeat 2-4 times

Pause. Keep going, always breathing out for twice as many counts as you breathe in. 

  • Breathe in for a count of three
  • Breathe out for a count of six
  • Repeat 2-4 times
  • Breathe in for a count of four
  • Breathe out for a count of eight
  • Repeat 2-4 times

… and so on. 

5. The breath offers something immediate and manageable to regulate for a sense of control and grounding.

In times of acute stress, the culprit at the core is often the feeling that we lack control over a given situation or end result, and our instinctual fight or flight response starts to activate in an attempt to prepare and protect us from the proverbial saber-toothed tiger chasing us. That’s why symptoms like tightness in the chest, increased heart rate and sweaty palms appear when we’re running late, going into a big meeting or awaiting important results.

Intentional breathing provides us with something accessible, immediate and powerful that we can control within ourselves when variable factors outside of us can feel threatening. It offers something immediate and manageable to regulate for a sense of command and a feeling of grounding. 

We can use the breathing technique detailed above to demonstrate how this works. When you’re inhaling for two and exhaling for four, it doesn’t require that much control, so you may not feel a difference yet. But once you increase the count, which requires more focus, then you realize that you control your breath. This helps you also feel in control of your thoughts, because you’re directing the mind and not letting your thoughts take over. 

Our breath and mind are regulated in the same way. With or without your attention, they will do what they do—the lungs will breathe on their own and the mind will ruminate on its own. With mindfulness and practice, you can have absolute control over them. 

The power of our breath is amazing. Meditative breathing is an extraordinary tool with infinite opportunities to observe the breath and regulate our mind and body. Our breath allows us to focus deeply inward towards our most fundamental, authentic self. 

So, next time you’re stressed, tap into your strength via your breath and see how you can regain control of your emotions and thoughts. You are in control. 

Have questions about meditation breathing or stress management? Drop them in the comments!

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