A single wailing breath hails our arrival into the world, just as a single silent one marks our departure. Between our first and last breaths, we take more than 23,000 breaths each day, for hundreds of millions of breaths over the course of a lifetime.
With each inhalation, we take in air molecules that oxygenate our blood and send it coursing through our veins to every cell in our body. And with every exhale we send carbon dioxide into the environment, cleansing our systems and making the grass grow greener.
At this moment, you are breathing some of the same molecules once breathed by Leonardo da Vinci, Colette, the Buddha, William Shakespeare…or whomever else you would care to think about. When we let out a deep breath, we exhale 10 sextillion air molecules, and it takes six years for that single breath to scatter throughout the Earth’s atmosphere, winding up in faraway places like Paris, Bombay or Rio de Janeiro.
Ultimately, our breath is the life force energy and the way in which we mindfully breath creates a delicious connection between the mind and body. Whereas the disturbed and distracted mind can have a tendency to run the show, when you breathe mindfully, your mind, body, and spirit are delightfully intertwined around each other, instead of at a stand-off.
Let’s Practice: A Meditative Breathing Exercise
For this exercise, give yourself a quiet space where you’ll be undisturbed. You can stand, sit up straight, or lie down. For the most efficient flow of the life force energy, you want your spine in alignment.
Let your shoulders melt down away from your ears. Yes, just let those trapezius muscles go!
Close your eyes. Bring in a deep breath through your nose. Feel the flow of this life-giving energy as it travels into and through the length and depth of your lungs.
You may feel the abdomen moving outward. Visualize every cell in your body receiving this life-giving energy.
As you slowly exhale (through the nostrils if possible), your abdomen will move inward. Imagine the navel moving inward toward the spine.
Don’t give the exhale short shrift here. Fully exhale. (Gulping in the next inhale without having fully exhaled is a primary culprit in shallow breathing).
Sense the release of stress that you may be holding in any part of your body. Proper breathing will open up and release held patterns of tension in the body and mind. You will begin to feel a deep sense of relaxation, while at the same time feeling a heightened flow of energy.
For those who have sinus issues, deviated septum, asthma, etc.—do the best you can with inhaling/exhaling through the nostrils. If this is difficult, then with teeth gently together and lips slightly open, breathe through the mouth. Keep this process soft and not strained.
Take 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths as outlined. Work toward full breathing that is deep, soft and easy, with no pauses or jerking. The deeper and easier the breath, the more the torso expands and contracts. With regular practice, this type of breathing can become an everyday habit and not just an exercise to be performed at a set time.
Breathwork is an integral part of meditation as well as yoga, so if you plan to build these practices into your life, be sure to master breathing first.
You can also increase your repertoire of breathing capabilities beyond the foundational diaphragmatic breathing. In Ayurveda/yoga practice, there is “Pranayama,” Sanskrit for “the science of breath.” The techniques are numerous and varied, some soothing or cooling, some stimulating. All offer great rewards for your future exploration.
Deep, gentle breathing is one of the most effortless highs that you’ll ever experience. Try it, right now, and often. There are few things in life as satisfying as this gentle dive into tranquility.
Put one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Inhale and exhale several times. Hopefully one of your hands moved! You actually want your abdomen to extend outward as you bring in a deep, fluid breath. Your abdomen will then contract inward as you exhale. This is what diaphragmatic breathing looks like.
MARY BETH JANSSEN is a certified mind-body health educator for the Chopra Center for Well Being and author of five books. Connect with Mary Beth @cosmicdenmother