It’s commonly said that fish are oblivious to the water they live in. Our ancestors may have experienced a similar lack of awareness about the earth’s atmosphere, as it was not until the 1770’s that some of its components, including oxygen, were discovered.
Breath is one of those comforting certainties of life; if you’re alive your body will be breathing. We can survive roughly three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without oxygen. Given how critical breathing is, it’s a great example of one of those things we take for granted every day.
The average human takes about sixteen breaths a minute and over 20,000 breaths a day, most of which are managed automatically by the brain stem. This is the early “reptilian” part of our brain that results from millions of years of evolution, which is just as well if you consider what you’d have to do without it.
Our breath changes with physical demands, like walking up a long staircase. It also changes with how we feel, so it’s no surprise that there’s a strong link between breath and emotion. When we’re stressed, anxious, angry, or sad our breathing can be affected.
Fast and shallower breathing can be triggered by stress that kicks us into fight-or-flight mode, which lowers our immunity, increases blood pressure, the risk of heart disease, mental illness, and lower life expectancy; clearly, something to avoid if we can.
The good news is that simply practising intentional and aware breathing can help switch from the fight-or-flight to the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, and reverses the physiological effects of stress. Intentional breathing is when we take control of our breath to increase energy, or calm and relax the body, mind, and emotions.
Interestingly, breathing is one of those physical systems that we can control, for instance, when we speak. We can also hold our breath, which we can typically do for around one minute before the urge to breathe takes over.
The more common way of practising mindfully with the breath is to allow the body and brain stem to do its work; breathing naturally without interfering. If it helps, imagine peacefully watching a pet breathing.
As well as an indicator of what’s going on for us physically and emotionally, we can also use the breath as an anchor into the present moment. Focussing on the breath decouples our attention from our thoughts into a grounded connection with our body, which is only ever in the present moment. It takes us out of mulling over past memories and imagined futures, to focus our attention on the qualities of this unique moment.
So, if you find yourself feeling agitated, stressed, or anxious, try gently bringing your awareness to your breath for a few moments; noticing your body breathing for you if you can while letting all the movement of mind and emotions gently settle and come to rest.
Breath is fundamental to life; we can’t live without it. Learning to be more aware of the breath and using it as a tool to release any agitation or stress brings us into the present moment and makes a real difference to our health, well-being, and performance.
Suggested weekly practice
- Using your breath as a stabilising anchor into the present moment, away from automatic thoughts, settling mental agitation, and calming emotional turbulence.
- Noticing and appreciating how the breath brings moment-to-moment energy into the body.
- If you notice that you are drifting during meditation, take a series of deeper, intentional breaths to raise your alertness.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second one to explore both intentional and natural breathing.