When was the last time you took a breath? Every few moments, right? But when was the last time you actually noticed the breath that you took? Patricia Gray, the founder of Yoga Gallery in Kansas City, gives us a simple exercise to hit the reset button, and all it does is include breathing.
As she says, “One of the things I think is really helpful is to stop and take inventory of your day. While standing or sitting, be very attentive to your posture. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Close your eyes, and then relax the diaphragm. Fill up your lungs to a slow three to four count breath. And then slowly exhale the same length of time and volume. And doing that, just stopping for a few, even just three slow breaths, will hit the reset button for stress.”
After you breathe for three slow breaths, you can do a mental inventory of your day. Instead of making this an inventory about what you are upset about, use it as a time to celebrate. Celebrate is one of my keywords for the year, because I think it is so important to acknowledge what we are doing well. As you take inventory of your day, celebrate yourself and what you did well. Did you incorporate that small change you are working on? Great job!
After celebrating yourself, think about what you are grateful for in your mental inventory. This doesn’t have to be the entire list. Since you just took three breaths, think about three things you are grateful for. Try to mention something unique to today.
Why does this practice matter? What is so important about breathing slowly and deeply?
As I explained here, breathing is very closely tied to your parasympathetic nervous system, your emotions and physical exertion. Your breathing rapidly increases when you are physically active — be that dancing or running from a tiger — or if you are emotionally stressed, upset, excited or crying. How I think about this is that breathing is both reactionary and proactive. If you are upset, your breathing speeds up and becomes more shallow. But if you are upset, and you purposefully start breathing more slowly, it will calm you down. In the first case, breathing is the result, but in the second it’s the cause.
How does deep breathing cause you to calm down if you are upset? Kaia Roman explains that deep breathing changes the response of the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala is a small area in the brain “that acts as the brain’s alarm system. When the amygdala is activated, it responds with the primal reactions of fight, flight, or freeze and blocks the prefrontal cortex’s ability to think clearly.” So if the amygdala freaks out, you are going to feel stressed out. If you take the time to breath slowly and deeply, the breaths send oxygen to the amygdala and soothe it.
In my first book, Wellness on a Shoestring, I wrote a chapter all about breathing. I said, “Breathing well is arguably the most important thing you can do for your health.” Now I might add that changing how you breathe is both the easiest and the best small change you can make to put the odds in your favor. It is easy, it doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t require equipment, training, a special location, or even any planning!
In fact, breathing is such an easy change to make that it is often recommended for children. When children are taught and reminded to take deep breaths when they are upset, their whole demeanor quickly changes. They can move from being on the verge of a tantrum to calm and happy with just a few deep breaths.
Try it and see if it works that effectively for you as well. If you aren’t immediately convinced by a change in your mental state, there are several other benefits to breathing exercises. Studies show that breathing exercises improve COPD, by improving labored breathing and increasing the lungs’ ability to take in air. Breathing exercises can also lower blood pressure, improve sleep reduce anxiety, and reduce stress.
In addition to those benefits, breathing can help us detoxify our bodies. Although we need oxygen, there are a number of other gases and toxins that we need to get rid of. The long exhalation when we breathe deeply helps us to get rid of those gases. There is also evidence that deep breathing releases stuck emotions. As you take long exhales, you can detox gases and emotions, and the long inhales help oxygenate your blood which boosts energy levels.
Take a few minutes at the end of the day to put the odds in your favor with this small, easy, and free change. And let us know how it went in the comments.