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I don’t know how many times I tell myself this. Sometimes it seems to help, sometimes not.
Recently, I learned that the way I breathe may be increasing my anxiety instead of calming me.
What? How can that be? Isn’t every meditation ever about breathing?
Well, yes—please read on.
Our brilliant bodies automatically inhale and exhale, bringing in oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. Guess which is more important. Turns out the release of carbon dioxide is more important to your body health and vitality.
If we are breathing in tight, inflexible ways, we only use a small portion of our lung capacity, and mostly, our lungs stay partially filled with carbon dioxide and other waste gases. That is toxic for our bodies and minds, and leads to chronic disease, anxiety, and depression. Did you feel yourself sigh right there? Me too.
There is hope; your body is designed to learn new ways to do things, to soften connective tissue, to strengthen muscles, and even to reshape organs.
All it takes is a little learning and practice.
Here are four ways our breathing sabotages us:
1. “Cell Phone Neck” Breath
My chiropractor said the most common injury chiropractors treat is “cell phone neck,” caused by tilting our heads down to look at phones or screens, which then rounds the upper back, puts 60-70 pounds of added pressure on the neck vertebrae, and collapses the rib cage.
While this pressure on the spine is padding chiropractor pockets, it is also compressing the lovely balloons in our chests, making exhaling and inhaling extremely shallow. Try it—it’s nearly impossible to take a big breath while curved in a C shape.
So what does that compression do to us? Excess carbon dioxide in the lungs invites inflammation, and triggers stress hormones to dump into the system, raising blood pressure and possibly leading to heart disease and a host of other ailments. When we are stressed, the body needs more oxygen to heal cells and calm the nervous system. If we don’t breathe fully, the compounded chronic stress on the body makes us less and less resilient to any new stress, and then we are susceptible to greater anxiety and depression. Standing in a grocery line for 30 seconds becomes unbearable; just ask the lady behind me.
So the next time you catch yourself caving in, take a moment to reset your spine. Lift your ears away from your shoulders, roll your shoulders back, and do a few shoulder rolls with deep breaths. Maybe even do a few twists or shake out a bit. Then lower your shoulder blades, tuck your tailbone down to the earth, and take three more deep breaths (slowly inhaling and exhaling).
If your deep breathing felt like it consisted mostly of your shoulders rising up toward your ears, read on.
2. Holding-In-My-Belly Breath
Have you seen those statues of the happy Buddha with a big, round, jolly belly? Well, turns out that big belly isn’t a metaphor: the healthiest way to breathe is to expand and contract your belly like a big, round balloon. I told that to my 6th grade class one day, saying, “C’mon, fill your belly like a Santa Buddha!”
A few boys laughed and tried, but most of the kids just looked embarrassed and halfheartedly lifted their shoulders on the inhale and quickly exhaled. Twelve-year-olds are super body conscious, so I wasn’t surprised by their reaction, but when I gave the same direction in an adult yoga class, I didn’t see a single belly move there, either.
We have been taught to hold it in—all in—especially in public, and certainly where there are mirrors all around. Turns out that years of belly shaming take a toll on our mental and physical health.
Unconsciously holding in our bellies creates tension in the body, tightening all the muscles along the spine, around the hips, and even down to the knees and ankles. Tight tendons pull all the muscles to the bone, and without loose tendons and muscles around the hips and ribs, we literally can’t breathe a deep belly breath.
So what’s a body to do? I tried this successfully with those body conscious 12-year-olds.
Lay on the floor, face up, place one hand on your belly and one on your heart center. As you inhale through your nose, try to push your hand up with your belly muscles. Feel the inhale lift your heart hand, imagine the breath coming up to the shoulders, then slowly exhale to about a count of four. The number doesn’t matter, the slowness of the exhale does.
Pull your belly button in and feel your hands lower. Do five or so of these every morning just as you are waking up, and slowly your muscles and tendons will soften, and your breath will become looser and deeper every day.
And grocery store lines will just be a place to practice your belly breath!
3. Standing Guard Breath
Georgetown University health policy reports that back pain is the sixth most costly condition in the United States and affects nearly 10 percent of all American adults.
What does this have to do with breathing? When we are faced with a stressful event (basically every day in 2020), our reptilian brain—the most ancient part of us that is trained to be on high alert—sends a message to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).
Those chemicals are great motivators to action, putting us in survival mode for the next saber-toothed tiger that’s lurking nearby, but unfortunately, the stress response is intended to help us survive those kind of attacks, not just Monday morning traffic.
So, our bodies go into high alert, and those chemicals cause a cascading survival response: shutting down digestion, thought processes, and our immune system; mucking up sleep cycles; and raising our heart rate and blood pressure. And it’s only Monday. And we haven’t even gotten to work yet.
If the rest of the week is equally stress-filled, then our system never gets a chance to go to rest-and-digest mode, our cells become inflamed, our muscles are tense all the time, we begin to experience pain, and all of that causes more unconscious tension leading to: back pain.
Yes, breathing alone isn’t going to prevent all the back pain out there, but if we take moments sprinkled throughout our days to really be present with our current experience—pressing our feet into the ground or just feeling our sitting bones, maybe swaying or swinging from side to side, possibly lifting our arms up to the sky and then slowly rolling our torso down toward the earth while slowly breathing in and out with two to three seconds in between the inhale and exhale—we can give our bodies a chance to heal, to release, and to be present with sensation.
And that is where vitality, health, focus, and calm begin.
4. Survival in the Shallow Breath
Most of the day, due to all the above situations, we breathe in a very shallow manner, exhaling quickly. The power really is in the exhale, so taking an inhale; holding it; feeling the breath in the belly; softening the shoulders, neck, and back; and then slowly exhaling as if we were cooling hot chocolate, encourages our bodies to adjust and breathe more fully and deeply every day.
If we want to live full, vibrant, joyful lives, resiliently responding with grace, calm, and focus, all we need to do is breathe.