We are so scared of it, and yet it is life.
Breath is the only way through pain. The only way through fear. The only way through joy.
And most of us are crap at it – the average person uses less than 25 percent of their lung capacity during normal breathing.
We neglect it even when we occasionally notice that we’re only taking shallow breaths, that our lungs are never completely filled, that our belly doesn’t rise and fall as we know it should.
The fact that we’re taking in less oxygen than our bodies are constructed to receive has an impact on the whole system. Habitual shallow breathing or thoracic breathing is a major precursor for cardiovascular problems, not to mention respiratory problems, as well as a host of other health issues.
Essentially (if you’ll allow me to be completely reductionist for a moment),
insufficient breath = contraction.
We contract in order to stop our bodies from breathing fully, and this contraction, on top of the lower intake of oxygen has a knock-on effect on our system at the mental, emotional, energetic and physical level.
Why we don’t breathe properly
The originating cause is usually mental and/or emotional anxiety, which – especially over a protracted period of time – has an impact on our energy system, and then becomes manifest in the body and shows up as shallow breathing.
When we don’t breathe fully it’s hard to feel grounded, we have lower energy levels and are less resilient to stress.
Breath is the primary way in which we exchange with the outside world. It is the physiological counterpart to the arising and dissolving that is life. Breath is flow. Breath is softness. Breath is surrender.
And that is why we contract.
We contract against surrender, against feeling everything that’s there, against the fear of what might happen if we did. We contract to stave off emotional overwhelm, to create a barrier, a hardening between us and the outside world, to retain control.
And the price of that hardening, of that contraction, is a diminished connection to ourselves.
In hardening ourselves and not breathing through what is there, we are to some extent cutting ourselves off from feeling – the difficult feelings, but of course we also have less access to the delicious feelings as well. We feel less connected to our core, we’re more scattered, find it harder to focus and make decisions, and to listen for and honour our needs.
When we don’t breathe fully we are rejecting ourselves.
We’re rejecting our response to the world, our unmet needs, our pain, and the growth that is waiting to happen by moving through all these things.
On an emotional/energetic level, the effect of shallow breathing is stuckness. When we don’t allow what is there to pass through, when we refuse to be with it, to live it, to let it move through us, it gets stuck. The stuckness is not only emotional but also energetic, and if sustained, can create blockages (that may also eventually show up on the physical level).
We are so scared of breath, of feeling. And yet feeling is our humanity. Feeling is empathy, compassion, love. Even grief is simply love inverted. And yes, feelings can seem overwhelming. But they only become overwhelming when we consistently suppress them.
When we can be with what comes up as it arises, even though it might be intense, it is rarely overwhelming. When emotion is allowed to be there, it moves through us; at some point there are no more tears, no more rage, no more despair. At some point, peace envelops us again, like the thundering calm after a violent storm.
So how to we go about shifting our relationship to the breath, and to feeling?
Learning to breathe
You may need to re-train your body how to breathe correctly. Deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing involves the use of the diaphragm, which helps to create more space for the lungs to expand, and for air to be pulled all the way down.
Here’s the thing: life is WAY easier to deal with when you’re taking full breaths.
There’s more space, more being with, fewer reactionary impulses. Your general state is much more calm and peaceful, and is less easily disturbed by external events. It’s easier to have perspective, to see the bigger picture, to maintain a witness perspective on what’s going on and where you’re at.
Yoga, Tai chi and meditation are all beneficial (but of course it depends what type; hatha yoga is great and yogic breath work is fantastic, breath-focussed meditation is great if you are able to relax into it).
Here are my four steps to getting started:
- Awareness: try paying more attention to your breath by checking in regularly throughout the day – I used a desktop timer for this (set to go off every hour) for several months and it changed me and the way I breathe. Seriously. My favourite one is Howler Timer (because you can howl along with the wolf ;)). Take a moment to close your eyes, sink into your body, and notice what your breathing is like. It’s the practice of awareness that will allow you to change the habit.
- Relax: be with your breath and gently exhale a little more than feels comfortable. Allow your belly to expand on the in-breath. You don’t want to be forcing anything – the intention is to relax into the breath as much as possible; let your shoulders drop, feel your torso sink into the seat (or your weight into the ground if you’re standing), let the tension melt. The more often you consciously relax, the more easily this state will be available to you.
- Notice: when you get present with the breath, what’s there? What do you notice about your emotions, energy, thoughts, body? Is there a particular emotion that’s always present? Do you contract certain muscle groups? What’s your posture like? Are there particular or recurrent thoughts? Noticing what’s there is great for gathering clues about the underlying cause of the contraction. Try to stay with whatever is there and be gentle with yourself.
- Full breaths: as your breath relaxes (you belly and chest should be moving – effortlessly! – as you breathe), try building up to a count of ten for every exhalation and inhalation. Start with 5 if your breathing is quite shallow, and work your way up – slowly.
Because we contract to avoid emotion, it’s very useful to be able to catch ourselves contracting in the moment – in a difficult situation, or when an emotion is arising, or in conflict. Ideally we modify (gently!) our breathing in the moment itself; this creates space for whatever needs to be released or expressed to do so.
Another interesting (and wonderful) thing about breathing deeply is that it slows us down.
We live in a very hectic, frantic culture in which being constantly busy is praised. As a result we’re spending far more time DOing than BEing (something I’ve written about more here), more time in our heads than in our bodies, more time trying to tick things off an endless to-do list than enjoying being alive.
Breathing fully slows down not only the breath, but our whole system (including the mind! how cool is that?!), enabling us to be more present and more deeply engaged in whatever we do.
For extra information, I love this video on how to take deep breaths, and this one that guides you through exercises to open up all the muscle groups involved and breathe “into your balls” (that’s “into your pussy” for the ladies – try it, it makes a difference!). ;)
Breathing fully is a practice for those of you who have chronic shallow breathing (as I used to) – it will take time to become the new normal. Awareness is key, and remember that it takes time for change to become embodied.
Questions or comments – get in touch!