Harnessing the Breath

As you turn to the next page of your exam, your teacher announces, “Ten minutes left!” You flip through the remaining problems and freeze, “I don’t think I’ll finish!” For a moment, you hold your breath and your hand tightens its grip on the pencil that moves as fast as it can, writing down your racing thoughts. Then, a very familiar problem shows up and you blank out! You’re panicking and your breath grows quick and shallow… Oh no! Feeling exasperated, pursing the lips together, focusing the eyes, wrinkling the forehead as if to squeeze out your thoughts…all of a sudden everything you learned becomes inaccessible.

This experience is so familiar to all of us, children and adults alike. There is no doubt that it is challenging to remain poised when the timer is ticking and the hours of studying seem to be of no avail as the mind blanks. But what if we had a key to unlock the composure and clarity that lies within us? What if there is a key that can prevent our hands and face from tightening, and in effect, prevent our minds from drawing a blank?

In our story above, we notice there is a key – the breath! The breath is a two-way messenger. It informs the body and the mind. When it is deep and steady, it tells the body everything is okay. The muscles relax and all the vessels in our body remain open, allowing nourishing blood to flow into every corner of ourselves. Slow, deep breaths also calm the mind asking thoughts to flow in and out of the mind with ease. But- in  the story above – the body had tightened and the mind felt frozen – everything you knew seemed to vanish when you needed it the most. You held your breath, and your body and mind lost composure. IMG_0424

If we knew how to harness our breath, perhaps, we could mitigate the consequences of high-pressure situations. So how do we harness the power of our breath? We do this by exploring the pathway of our breath into, inside, and out of our bodies. We observe the breath flowing up our nose and down our throat, and we then imagine its journey deep into the belly and abdomen. We retrace the breath in its way back out. While the air we breathe physically ends in the cavities of our lungs, our bodies feel the effects of each inhalation and exhalation in the rise and fall of the belly and chest. Inhalations and exhalations have other more subtle tangible effects on our bodies that we can sense if we slow down and sit quietly. Our entire being feels nourished and nurtured by the ever-present breath on each inhalation and exhalation. So, let’s practice becoming still and observe the breath with all of our senses in this very moment.

The action for this article comes in the form of an exercise:

After finishing one task, and just before beginning the next task, bring your attention to your breath. For example, if you just put your laundry in the machine and are getting ready to go out for a run, the time in between is the gap between the two “tasks”.

Take slow deep breaths by imagining the breath traveling all the way into your belly and abdomen, and slowly back out through your nose. It is in the stillness between two activities that our mind has the opportunity to “reset”. Stay engaged with your breath  in the midpoint between actions. Notice what happens and, perhaps, how you feel. If you have the liberty to do so, you may even choose to lay down or sit to take your deep breaths. It is perfectly fine to take the deep breaths while moving around as well.

This entry was posted in Focus & Clarity, Metacognition, Preparing the Mind, Stillness and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Harnessing the Breath

  1. Neel Patel says:

    There is specifically a technique of diaphragmatic breathing that allows the muscles of the body to relax and can reduce the fight or flight response of the mind. It is a commonly prescribed technique in physical and mental therapy, where you train your body in diaphragmatic breathing. It is the most efficient muscle of breathing. Here is a link from University of Georgia:

    Click to access Clinic_Diaphragmatic_Breathing.pdf

    Since you spoke about harnessing the breathe, why not harness it in the most effective way!


  2. Linus says:

    I often have to mentally “reset”. Using breath as a reset technique is something I’ll start using. Thanks Payal for sharing.


  3. marcbalcer says:

    I like the physiological reality that our stress response generally includes increase in heart rate and breathing accompanied by perspiration and “butterflies”. Our breath is the only one we can really manage (control seems like a bad word here) through gentle observation. Best, Marc


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