Breathing is as essential to human life as food and water. While most people know this simple fact, few take time to think about the importance of the way they breathe.
Breathing is also important on a mental, spiritual, and emotional level. Proper breathing can be a means of achieving relaxation, balance, and peace in an increasingly hectic, over-anxious world. It goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness.
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is an important stress reducer for everyone. The simplest metaphor that I can offer is this: Imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach. As you inhale, you fill up the balloon. As you exhale, you deflate the balloon. Inhale; exhale. In both cases, there’s no need to rush. The balloon can fill slowly, and empty slowly. Your chest and shoulders do not need to be a part of the process and it’s much better if they’re not. As you achieve deep diaphragmatic breaths, your chest and whole torso will move, but they are not actively involved in the process.
Another way to understand diaphragmatic breathing, especially if you haven’t been doing it, is to simply lie on the floor. Now, breathe as you normally would, while placing one or both hands over your stomach, near your navel.
Do you feel that up-and-down motion? That’s it; you’re doing diaphragmatic breathing through your abdomen!
Why don’t you do this all the time? Other than when you’re lying down, if you are excited, tense, or in a hurry, it’s easy to slip into a nonproductive routine, raising your shoulders, expanding your chest, and letting these areas be the driving forces behind your breathing. If you’ve been engaged in vigorous athletic activity, you may resort to using your chest and upper torso in combination with your abdomen to gain more oxygen into your lungs faster. This is understandable. At a more normal heart rate, however, deep diaphragmatic breathing is best for all homo sapiens.
Fresh air can help you achieve measurably lower levels of stress, oxygenate your tissues, improve circulation, increase alertness, diminish muscle tension, and reduce anxiety. If you live in an area where the air quality is poor you’re missing out. Your best strategy may be to take frequent trips out of town, away from traffic, and away from population centers. Scramble to the top of a small mountain where the air is clear and clean, but not necessarily thin. Or, take a walk in the woods, where trees and plants take in nitrogen and return oxygen to the atmosphere. Fresh air combined with a brisk walk is a powerful combination.
Getting Some Time to Breathe at Work
When you arrive at work in the morning, particularly if you’ve arrived before the rest of the office, you have the best opportunity for concentrating on your breathing. While doing so, you may or may not envision how you would like your day to go.
If you don’t work outside of the home, when everyone else has departed, give yourself a few minutes to undertake the same type of exercise. If you stay home with children or other household occupants, carving out a few minutes for yourself during the early morning is even more crucial.
At work, at home, and everywhere in between, take a few minutes before lunch, while seated, to relax, take some deep breaths, acknowledge yourself for what you’ve accomplished this morning, and contemplate how good it will be to eat lunch. Once you’re actually eating lunch, carefully and slowly chew your food.
Eat at a leisurely pace. How you eat your food is as important as what you’re eating. Even if you’re eating high-quality, highly nutritious food, if you wolf it down, you’ll receive few, if any, of the presumed benefits. By contrast, food not nearly so nutritious, consumed at a comfortable, unhurried pace can yield far more nutritional benefits.
Linger for a moment after lunch. No matter how hectic your day is otherwise, you always have a couple of extra minutes following lunch to give your digestive system a little bit more help, take some deep breaths, and maintain a relatively sane pace.
Pause daily for a few minutes. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to making life simpler is the unwillingness to allow it to occur. Many people simply do not give themselves permission to achieve a sense of balance, take a deep breath, and then proceed. Paradoxically, every single shred of wisdom on the issue indicates that everybody will be more effective each day if they simply pause for a minute a couple of times each day. This could be done every morning and afternoon – coming back from the water cooler or restroom, before lunch, or returning from lunch.
Years ago, when Maria Shriver was co-hosting one of the morning talk show in New York, she would fly in each week from her home in California and return at the end of the week. Crisscrossing the United States on nearly 100 trips per year is a considerable amount of travel, not to mention disruption. Shriver minimized the effects of thousands of miles in the air and maintained balance in her daily life.
Each Friday evening, when heading back to California, she took the same flight, from the same airport, on the same airline, leaving from the same gate, at the same hour. She even reserved the same seat. She often flew with the same pilots and same flight crew, and occasionally, the same passengers.
Rather than having the need to be physically back at her house or touching down at the Los Angeles International Airport before taking that metaphorical deep breath, she felt at home and relaxed when she boarded the plane. In essence, she minimized the effects of a rigorous schedule by transforming her seat in the sky into a welcoming sanctuary. She was home in that seat. You can achieve a similarly successful transition from work to home.
Gung-ho, career-climbing types who arrive home still mentally immersed in the affairs of the work day and revving at the pace of business might have difficulty relating to members of their family. You might need to let your internal engine “rev down” by taking a deep breath following work before proceeding to interact with your family.
Doing something mentally or physically rewarding before dinner can also increase relaxation. If for only five minutes, simply sit in a chair and reflect on the day, and take deep breaths. This could make all the difference in having an enjoyable dinner and rest of the evening. Avoid flipping on the television or radio, web surfing, or reading the newspaper or a magazine if these activities divert attention away from family.