Breathing: Our Very Own Superpower, and 3 Simple Ways to Use it!
Yup, you read that correctly. Breathing is a superpower.
It often gets overlooked because it's an automatic process. It's something that our body can do without us really having to pay attention to it. However, I'm going to invite you to spend a few minutes thinking about it, because when used intentionally and mindfully, breathing can be our greatest tool for physical and mental calm, clarity, and presence!
Why Should I Pay Attention to the Breath?
There are numerous benefits that come from engaging in mindful breathing. Some of the key ones include:
Reduces cortisol levels
Delivers more oxygen throughout the body
Slows down the heart rate
Detoxes the muscles and reduces muscle tension
Increases attention and focus
Increases energy levels
Reduces negative affect
Breathing, Cortisol, and the Stress Response
When you're stressed, your sympathetic nervous system fires up, and a number of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into your body. This is all a part of your fight or flight response. In this state, there is a whole cascade of effects:
Increased heart rate, or feeling like your heart is racing
Muscles tensing up; feeling agitated or over-stimulated
Body is focused on escaping "danger" or "threat"
As a result, other systems of the body that are not critical to your physical safety are moved down the priority list, such as the immune system. That’s why when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to get sick and it can take you longer to heal.
Fight or flight is greatly beneficial to us when we are in moments of danger, such as the classic (and mostly irrelevant) example that we've all heard: running from a bear. Thankfully, it's rare for us to be in such moments of grave danger. Yet, most people find that their fight or flight response still gets easily triggered - sometimes, even just by thinking about a time that was stressful or scary.
Mindful breathing is such a powerful tool because it can directly impact which state you are in. Shallow, rapid breathing can trigger fight or flight, while deep breathing can trick the body into a rest and digest state.
Even in moments of stress and anxiety, if mindful breathing is used, you can override the whole fight or flight system; your muscles relax, your heart rate slows down, and things like your immune and digestive systems can be prioritized again. Your mind is able to relax because your body becomes a safe place for you to be more present in.
Practical Application: Step One, How Do I Assess My Breathing?
I always like to start off with a baseline measurement of my breathing to see where my mind and body are at. This can be done from any seated position.
Begin by placing your left hand over your chest, and right hand over your belly. Without changing anything at all, notice where your breath falls.
Does it fall more in your left hand, in your chest? Does your right hand move as well? Does it feel shallow or deep, short or long, fast or slow? Without judgment, notice the quality of the breath.
Here are three simple practices that I like to use when I'm needing to calm my body and return to the present moment.
1. Diaphragmatic or Belly Breathing
Your diaphragm is a muscle near the bottom of your ribcage that aids in breathing. When you breathe deeply, it creates more space in your lungs to enhance oxygen intake.
Once again, place your hands over your heart and your belly.
As you inhale, breathe deeply so that you feel your belly expanding. This is a sign that your diaphragm is being engaged.
As you exhale, release all the air and feel your belly relax. This gif can be a great guide in slowing the breath!
Like any other new experience, this practice may be a challenge to do at first. Your diaphragm may feel tight, like it can't expand too much. You may even feel physically dizzy; this is because when your body is accustomed to shallow breathing, it's a new experience to have such a large oxygen intake. If it feels too dizzying, allow yourself to pause and take smaller steps. There is no need to rush. The diaphragm is the same as any other muscle: it gets stronger with practice and time. Be gentle with yourself during this.
2. Square or Box Breathing
Similar to belly breathing, the idea is to take deeper breaths while engaging the diaphragm. This technique is a more controlled version that also focuses the mind by including the component of counting.
Set yourself up in the same way you would for belly breathing.
Inhale deeply for 4 counts. Send your breath all the way into your belly, so you feel your hand rising.
Pause for 4 counts. Hold your breath. Be in the moment.
Exhale slowly for 4 counts. Release all that doesn’t serve you.
Pause for 4 counts. Reset.
Continue for 5 breath cycles, or until you feel at ease.
3. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This one is a little different. Rather than focusing on breathing into the belly, the focus is on, you guessed it, your nostrils!
Using your right hand, hover your thumb and ring finger around your nostrils. If you'd like to include chakra or energy work in this, place your index and middle finger on your third eye, right between your eyebrows.
Place your thumb on your right nostril. Inhale slowly through your left nostril.
At the top of the breath, close both nostrils briefly.
Keeping your left nostril closed, open your right nostril. Exhale slowly.
Inhale through your right nostril. Pause briefly at the top.
Exhale through your left nostril. Repeat the cycle for two minutes.
I love this technique because it physically forces you to slow your breathing down. I even like to close my eyes and visualize my breath moving through the points of contact in my fingers, cleansing my headspace and upper chakras.
When Should I Use the Superpower?
The most honest answer is: whenever you want, as often as you want! This is not one of those powers that needs to be saved for moments of distress. The beauty of breathing is that you are ALWAYS doing it! It is a powerful and beautiful cycle of beginnings and endings, giving and receiving, holding on and letting go. It can be used at any moment to reset the body and ground yourself in the present moment.
However, once again, breathing can be especially useful when you are in situations that tend to trigger your stress response. This might be when you are trying to fall asleep, when you are about to enter an anxiety-inducing situation, or even when you're stuck in a traffic jam. When you initiate the deep breaths, you are telling your body and your mind: "You are safe. It's okay. You don't need to run or hide." Utilizing the breath can draw you back into your centre and allow you to navigate each situation with a calm body and mind.
Be well in mind, body, and spirit!