All of us experience lots of discomfort as we move throughout our day. It is part of being a human being. But we have a powerful healing tool that opens what has been closed and calms what is agitated – our breath. It is truly one of the most amazing healers we have and yet most people don’t think to turn to it in times of stress. Slow, deep breathing is not only relaxing, it has also been scientifically proven to affect the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system and the nervous system. Our bodies need the healing power of our breath.
As we are exploring the almost magical healing properties of breath, I invite you to take a moment to notice that breath is happening in you right now – rising and falling, rising and falling. And it has been doing this since the moment you were born! Also, notice if you’re holding your breath. It is more than likely that you are, so invite yourself to allow a couple of long, slow, deep out-breaths.
Let’s get to know why breath is such a powerful healer. There are two parts to the nervous system: the autonomic nervous system which automatically runs our digestion, hearts, and hormones, and the sympathetic nervous system which is our fight-or-flight mechanism. The sympathetic system’s job is to prepare the body when you are faced with danger, such as knowing what to do when you encounter a tiger in the woods. When this happens, your muscles tense up and energy goes from your stomach to your limbs so that they are ready to respond. Once out of danger, the parasympathetic system is designed to then calm you down.
When you were young, you got scared by things you didn’t understand and couldn’t control. You were also conditioned to resist your challenges, including discomfort in your mind and body, and to always try to make things different than what they are. Without even noticing it, you began to live in the sympathetic system most all the time. This has created tension in your body and has caused your mind to whirl and spin. When something happens to you that causes you distress, kicking the sympathetic nervous system into high gear, watch fight or flight take over. You will see how much you tighten, hold your breath and get lost in the reactions in your mind. That is the conditioned fear-based self.
The power of breath to heal this conditioning is phenomenal. Doctors and psychiatrists all over the world are touting the benefits of breathing techniques to help relieve depression, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and anxiety. Studies of yoga, which emphasize the breath, have demonstrated its effectiveness on cutting blood pressure, relieving anxiousness and boosting the immune system.
In a 2000 study, doctors at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in India found that a daily breathing technique called the Sudarshan Kriya was as effective as anti-depressants in treating patients hospitalized with severe depression and nearly as effective as electroconvulsive shock therapy, with far fewer side effects! Dr. Richard Brown, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University at the time of the study said, “Breathing not only calms down the stress response, which is what anti-depressants do, but it activates the recharging, healing part of the nervous system.”
So, when discomfort happens, you have the choice to get lost in your reactions and contractions or you have the choice to turn on the calming aspect of your nervous system by connecting with your breath. Pause for a moment now and recognize that breath is still happening as you are reading. If you watch closely, you will see that your in-breath lifts and opens you up from the inside, and the out-breath is a great wave of letting go. To enhance the letting go of the out-breath, you can even say, “Ahhh,” either silently or out loud. The key is to breathe out very slowly.
This is such a simple but amazing kind of breath that can be sprinkled throughout your day. Besides dramatically calming the daily stresses of life, it can also make it safe for your heart to open again, meeting your discomfort with spaciousness and compassion. For all lasting healing happens in your heart!
So, the next time you are feeling discomfort, either physical, mental or emotional, the invitation is to soften your belly and allow some long, slow out-breaths. Rather than leaving yourself in reaction and contraction, turn toward yourself, giving yourself the gift of conscious breaths. If it calls to you, put your hand over your heart, meeting yourself with compassionate breaths. And if you are ready, give yourself the powerful gift of breathing in and out right at the place that is holding the most in your body. When you breathe into whatever hurts, you are actually giving it permission to soften and let go.
Bring your attention to your breath again. Are you willing, before you go onto something else, to give yourself the gift of some long, slow out-breaths? If so, I promise you, it will change the trajectory of your day.