Have you ever been given the advice to "just breathe"? I reckon it's got to be the most unhelpful bit of helpful advice it's possible to give in the heat of the moment. You are jolly lucky if you don't end up second best when you dish that one out. Yet, I found myself doing just that this morning as my 7 year old spiraled into a tailspin of doom. I caught myself as I said it, and braced for impact. To her credit she let me off lightly with a rather compelling death stare, some stomps and carried on voicing her opinion on the indignity of having to do her own dishes.
What I saw was a child breathing very fast and shallow, shoulders by her ears, frontal cortex well and truly disengaged and clearly in the throws of a stressful situation. But what is stress? Why do some people handle situations with grace and ease and for others it's tantrum worthy. My Qigong teacher Lee Holden describes stress as the difference between the way things are, and the way you want them to be. It's not a thing, it's a perception of a thing. And we get to choose what our perception is. Yep, we get to choose if we pop on our favourite tunes and have a great time waiting in busy traffic, or whether we grind out teeth and get angry, tense and stressed in the same situation.
So back to breath. Breath really is the quickest and easiest way to switch from stress mode to relax mode. Our breath patterns are a really good indicator to our emotions and our stress levels. You can see this if you take some short, shallow and fast breaths. Notice how your shoulders feel. This breathing pattern actually physically tenses up your neck and shoulders, creating even more tension and stress. This is the stress breathing pattern. Chances are if you are in stress mode you really aren't paying much attention at all to your breath and you don't really care, but breathing this way often can lead to more serious health problems, so it's a good one to be aware of.
Likewise when you are sad or crying, it has it's own particular breathing pattern with a focus on the inhale, usually a breath hold and a reluctance to let go and release the out breath. When you are angry it's all about the out breath, sighing, huffing and puffing. If you focus on inhaling when you are angry it can help clear the anger.
Deep long belly breathing has the effect of calming the nervous system. It allow the body to let go of tension and stress, to drop into the moment to become clear, centered and calm. Laughter is one of the best deep belly breathing exercises there is, it creates a flood of good chemistry through the body.
Consciously practising deep abdominal breathing can have huge health benefits:
Deep breathing gives your digestive system a massage, improving your overall digestion. When you are stressed out, in fight or flight mode your digestive system shuts off so the body can focus on more immediate urgent needs, like running away from danger. Deep breathing switches the body from fight or flight mode to relax mode, de-stressing your nervous system and improving digestion.
When the diaphragm is moving whilst deep breathing, it takes the pressure off your heart and can act as a secondary pump for your circulatory system. Heart attacks are mainly from under oxygenated blood.
Breathing deeply helps circulate the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a major part of the body's immune system, and is like the garbage collector for your body.
Breath plays a big part in balancing emotions, the pattern of the breath can signal when things are heading off track, and we can consciously ground and center our emotions through deep slow breathing.
Here's three great deep breathing techniques we use in Bliss Calm Qigong classes to calm our mind, center our body and drop into the moment.
Deep abdominal breathing
Begin by breathing deeply into the abdomen. Place both hands on the abdomen and as you inhale, the belly expands outward and moves back toward the spine on the exhale. Make sure your breathing is long, slow, deep, and soft.
Bring your right hand over your navel and place your left hand on your sternum at the center of your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Feel you lower abdomen expand first. As you continue to inhale, let the breath rise up through your ribs. Keep inhaling until the breath reaches your chest, beneath your hand. Exhale through your nose; feel your breath relaxing and your chest descending. Allow the exhale to relax through the ribs. At the end of the exhalation, allow your abdomen to move back toward the spine as you squeeze the breath all the way out.
The Wave Breath technique allows for a deeper connection between the abdominal cavity and the lung and heart area. It fills both areas with life giving energy, as well as a soft flowing movement that helps the whole body relax and rejuvenate. It both calms the system down and, at the same time, energizes the body for greater alertness and focusing ability.
Heart to sky
Place your hands in prayer position at the heart. Inhale deeply as you move the hands out and separate out wide to shoulder level. Push the chest forward and up as if to point the heart to the sky. Exhale and return to the starting position. Heart to sky breathing activates the upper lobes of the lungs and heart, as it exercises the intercostal muscles, releasing emotional stress. It has the ability to center and settle the heart emotions.