Talking with a friend recently about a long-ago lung illness made me reflect on how critical breathing awareness is to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, yet it's something we barely acknowledge. The first thing we do when we enter our lives is breathe; the last thing we do as we exit this lifetime is to release our final breath. And in between we will breathe on average, 16 times every minute, which over a lifetime of 80 years will total 672,768,000 breaths of life. Oddly, in this culture we pay so little attention to the one thing that our very lives depend upon. We can last for a few days without water, longer without food, but we depend on the next breath, the one we are breathing right now, to keep us alive.
Breathing is the foundation of much of our overall wellness. Slow, deep, mindful abdominal breathing lowers our heart and respiration rates, decreases blood pressure and muscle tension, and increases the oxygen supply to our brains which in turn aids in mental concentration. In addition, slow abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the "feed/breed" mode (as opposed to the "fight/flight" mode), which induces a sense of calm and connectedness between mind and body. Cultivating breath awareness is an essential skill for people struggling with anxiety or panic disorders, as it is the doorway to the body's relaxation response. Most people who suffer with either of these debilitating problems breathe shallowly, high up in the chest area. Learning to breathe deeply from the abdomen is the first step in interrupting the pattern of nervous system arousal that leads to out-of-control anxiety or fear.
Lastly, and for some people, most importantly, breathing as a meditative technique is the entrée to a connection with the Divine. Books abound on meditation; visit any bookstore and you will find scores of books outlining dozens of meditative practices. And most of these start with a focus on the breath. Concentrative meditation is one of the most basic and familiar meditative techniques. You begin by bringing awareness to your breath. Almost immediately, you will become distracted. In a gentle and friendly way, bring your attention back to your breath.
Allow yourself to rest on your breath, and feel its rhythm. Don't try to alter it in any way or reprimand yourself for your mental wanderings- just allow the breath, follow it, as if it were a faithful friend, which of course it is. As more thoughts arise, which they most certainly will, return to your anchor, your breath. Negative feelings, body discomfort, concerns about doing it right, even items for your To-Do list will all vie for your attention. But keep returning, each time, to the breath. Stay with this practice for 5 minutes a day, then 10 minutes, then 20. In time, you will notice that you are able to keep your breath awareness for longer and longer periods. Distractions will lose some of their power, and you will find a greater peace, a calm, and an alertness that starts to spill over into your daily life.
Take time throughout your day for breath awareness - when stressed or rushed, stop, and see yourself breathing peace into your being, then breathing out stress. If feelings of discouragement or even despair are present, breathe in hope, then breathe out the painful feelings. As your practice becomes more solid, you may expand your scope to breathe in peace for yourself, then breathe out peace to the world around you. Consider starting and ending your day with this practice, and notice, over time, how this begins to change your life.