TOOL #1: Calming Down by Breathing
It should come as no surprise that breathing is the first tool. Let’s work on this together.
· Take a good deep breath. Inhale. . . breathe in through your nose.
· Exhale. . . breathe out through your mouth.
· Do it again. . . inhale. . . exhale.
Notice where the breath is going. When I ask people to “take a good deep breath” almost everyone puffs up their lungs and upper chest. This is not a deep breath. A breath that raises your shoulders and expands your chest does not calm you down; it actually amps you up. I call it a “fight or flight breath” because it prepares you to do battle or to run away. This kind of breathing feels like fear. It’s what the body does when it’s reacting to danger.
Imagine you are walking in a jungle and suddenly a ferocious tiger is facing you, baring its teeth. Fear courses through your body. When you take a big gulp of air while facing a tiger, it goes to your upper chest. Either you’re going to face the danger or you’re going to run away from it. Either way, this is a survival breath and its purpose is not to relax you.
A calming breath, on the other hand, goes to a different and deeper place—your belly, which is why Tool #1 is a calming belly breath.
Exercise: The Belly Breath
· To start with, sit comfortably in a chair with your back well supported.
· Place your body in an open position—uncross your arms and your legs. (If your arms or legs are crisscrossed you will restrict your airflow.)
· Rest your palms on your thighs and place both feet on the floor.
· Now place your hands on top of your navel and let your belly just relax. This means don’t hold your belly in. (Resist any temptation here to suck in your stomach so you can look thin.) Let your belly hang out and relax. First, exhale through your mouth …Now breathe in through your nose, but don’t suck in your belly. Let it stay expanded. You will feel the breath seep into your lungs as you breathe in, but your chest won’t be heaving up and down. Both belly and chest will be calm as your breath keeps dropping down into your lower belly.
· Slowly, breathe in and out three times in this open, expanded position, chest relaxed and belly wide.
· If you want to deepen your breath even more, reach your hands around you and place your palm and fingers on both sides of your lower back right along the hips. Now, breathe deeply down and feel your bottom back ribs very gently expand as you do this. This is a small, subtle movement. You have to be quiet and tuned in to feel it, but as you sense this gentle movement of your ribs you will notice your calmness deepening.
· Now, inhale again, deeply down into your belly and lower back.
· Slowly exhale … let the breath out gently.
· Breathe in and out like this three times.
· Feel yourself calming down.
· Don’t force the breath in and out and don’t hyperventilate.
At this point you might start yawning or feel sleepy. Many people have this reaction. Recently, a bright, athletic, 17-year-old girl came to me for SAT coaching. As she talked about herself she was so charged with energy she could hardly sit still. With lightning speed she rattled off an incredibly long list of activities in which she was involved. I couldn’t help but notice that she hardly took a nanosecond to breathe. We started working on deepening and regularizing her breath. In less than five minutes she started yawning. A lot. Then she actually fell asleep! Her system was so tightly wound and deprived of oxygen, so needing to rest, that given the first opportunity to calm down she conked out. So, if you are yawning, are sleepy, or feel light-headed as you start paying attention to and deepening your breath, know that this is actually a good sign. Your body is calming down. It is telling you that it is not used to breathing deeply and regularly, and it needs some rest!
The way to deep belly breathing is to work slowly, gently and determinedly on cultivating your breath. It may feel a little strange at first and all that oxygen might make you may feel a bit light-headed. Your system simply isn’t used to taking real breaths. It’s used to short, choppy, mini-breaths. After a while though, deep, steady breathing will feel like the most natural, calming thing in the world.
Putting Breathing into Action
The next time you notice that you are not calm, treat the anxious feelings like a road sign. If your stomach is churning, or you start sweating, or your legs are shaking, your body is sending you a message: “You need to calm down.” This is your awareness kicking in. The first thing to ask yourself is, “How am I breathing?” because it is the most primary. You’ve probably stopped breathing or your breath has become very shallow or irregular. Do the exercise above and you will feel yourself calming down immediately.
Once you have started breathing deeply regularly say, “Thank you” inside. Why do this? Because the awareness you just received that you were not breathing is a gift. It is a realization to be grateful for. Whether you believe your awareness comes from a God, a Goddess, a Higher Power, your Highest Self, Nature, the Universe, or Life, the very fact that it is coming to you at all is like a present. Gratitude acknowledges the giver and encourages future giving. Imagine receiving a wonderful gift from someone and not saying thank you. The giver wouldn’t feel like being generous again, “Well, she didn’t say ‘Thank you’ last time.” Expressing gratitude invites more of what you’re grateful for to come your way.
What most people do when they notice that they are “breathing wrong” is to beat themselves up—“I can’t believe I’m still doing that! When am I gonna learn?” They don’t appreciate the awareness at all. This kind of critical response is not allowed! I urge you to try saying “Thank you” every time you become aware of anything that you are trying to change in yourself. Gratitude is the opposite of criticism and it spreads an atmosphere of kindness and compassion—exactly the right atmosphere for inner growth.
Breathing deeply and then saying “Thank you” reduces feelings of stress, and you actually improve the possibility of attaining your goalS because you are cultivating a helpful relationship with the powers of change. When you breathe deeply and regularly you are giving your brain, blood, and body the oxygen it needs to perform optimally. Even if you don’t believe in a God, Goddess or Higher Power, expressing gratitude still cultivates a better relationship with your own consciousness and highest self (the best person you can be).