I wrote an article a little while back about how the sensations we experience in our bodies are so central to how we perceive the world. I’m going to expand on that piece further here by talking about how deeply our breathing influences the way we experience living, and how much simply staying conscious of our breathing can improve the quality of our lives.
If I had to choose one phrase to define the culture of much of the world today, I would pick “short attention span.” We’re constantly seeking more things to define and complete us in the outside world, whether it’s a new relationship, career, stereo system, or something else. But even when we get those things, we quickly lose interest in them and start craving other kinds of stimulation. No matter what we acquire in our restless search, it never seems to hold our attention or keep us satisfied for long.
Some say this is because human beings are fickle creatures by nature. More and more, however, I’m starting to wonder if the short attention span of our culture stems, at least in some part, from the way we tend to breathe. Many of us have gotten into the habit of breathing shallowly, taking small, rapid gasps of air into our chests, and reducing the amount of oxygen circulating through our bodies. As Drs. James E. Loehr and Jeffrey Migdow explain in Take A Deep Breath, restricting our breathing like this puts us at greater risk of anxiety, high blood pressure, fatigue and other health problems.
When we aren’t getting enough oxygen and we’re tiring and stressing ourselves as a result, it’s no wonder we suffer from a nagging sense of incompleteness, a constant feeling that we need something more to make us whole. As movement therapist Donna Farhi writes in The Breathing Book, shallow breathing may give you “the feeling that your life has become like that of a hamster—endlessly running on a little wheel, with no way to stop and get off.”
We tend to assume this sense of lack results from something missing in our outer circumstances—maybe our job doesn’t pay well enough, our relationship has lost its spark, or something else. But in fact, what we may really be craving is simply more air in our lungs. This could explain why we seem locked in a frantic dash for new forms of stimulation, only to find that nothing gives us lasting fulfillment. It may also explain why life occurs to so many of us as a desperate, unforgiving struggle for survival, and nothing we achieve seems to quell that fear.
Returning To Our “Natural Breath” Can Change Our World
This sharply contrasts with how we feel when we let go of the restrictions we put on our breathing—when we stop tightening our stomach, let the breath flow into our abdomen, and drop the other ways we prevent ourselves from breathing fully. When we completely allow our natural breathing process to operate, we find that our entire body, and not just our chests, seems to expand and contract with each breath. As psychiatrist Alexander Lowen wrote, “natural breathing—that is, the way a child or animal breathes—involves the whole body.” A feeling of peace and wholeness comes over us, and the nagging sense that something is missing disappears.
I’ve certainly experienced dramatic shifts in my worldview simply by changing the way I’m breathing. Occasionally, for example, I’ll have moments where my life starts to feel cramped. I start to feel like the space I live in is too small, people are imposing on me and wasting my time, my relationship has become smothering, and so on. In other words, the outer circumstances of my life seem like the source of the constricted feeling I’m having.
But if I take a moment and check in with how my breathing feels, I often make a remarkable discovery. My lungs, just like the world around me, are feeling constricted—perhaps I’m holding my stomach tight, breathing into my chest, hunching over slightly, or something else. And when I relax my body and allow my abdomen to expand with each breath, the world around me begins to feel more expansive as well. Suddenly, I feel more space and freedom to make my own decisions and do the activities I want, and I no longer feel so crowded.
If you find yourself often feeling trapped, desperate or constricted in your life, I invite you to try this exercise. When you find those sensations coming up, just take a moment to observe how you’re breathing. Don’t judge or criticize yourself for how your breath is flowing through your body—simply watch it for a few minutes. Are you cramping your breathing by tensing any muscles—say, in your diaphragm or abdomen? Are you breathing in rapid gasps? Are you breathing solely into your chest?
If you notice yourself constricting your breathing in these or other ways, notice how simply being aware of that constriction can help you let go. As your breathing becomes more conscious, you may find yourself relaxing into your natural, intuitive mode of breathing—and find your view of the world growing more peaceful and optimistic as well.
Some of us restrict our breathing more heavily in certain situations that have us feel particularly anxious or defensive—maybe when someone accuses us of a mistake, we’re meeting new people, we’re making a presentation at work, or something else. If you find yourself feeling more fear or tension in specific situations, it may be useful to notice whether your breathing becomes shallower or tighter when you get into those environments. Just understanding which situations tend to have you restrict your breathing can do much to help you relax and restore your composure.
An Approach I’ve Found Useful
One common approach to removing the restrictions we place on our breath involves “breathing into” the places where we’re tensing up and preventing the breath from entering. That is, as you breathe, see if you can imagine your breath filling the place where you’re holding tight, and bringing healing and compassion to the tense area.
You may also find it useful to place your hand on the area you want to open up or relax. This helps you direct your attention into that part of your body. If you do this, I suspect you’ll find the tension that used to prevent you from taking a full, nourishing breath fading away.
I learned this technique from the book Ultraprevention, by Drs. Mark Hyman and Mark Liponis, and it’s also been employed by coaches and bodyworkers I’ve worked with. When I use it, it affects me pretty quickly—all I have to do is breathe while putting my hand on my diaphragm, which is the place I usually tighten up, and I find the tension immediately begin to dissipate. Not only does my breathing feel more open and relaxed, but the world seems to transform into a more peaceful and livable place.