Deep Breathing: Practice
Written by: By Luis Maimoni, LMFT #105978
We’re angry, sad, or anxious. We want to return to a calm state. Breathe, we’re told. But how? There are many, many how-to articles, blogs, and videos on deep breathing. The process I’m describing here is much as I describe it to my clients in practice, and is the product of years of testing, researching, and adjusting. It is a combination of biomechanics, meditation, and mindfulness.
In practice, I always include a discussion of the “why,” even though most clients are more interested in the “how.” The reason is that understanding the “why” makes the instructions in the “how” more meaningful and easier to apply.
As with any relaxation technique, results vary from person to person. Find the method that works best for you. If this article helps you: wonderful. If not, Googling “deep breathing” generated around 202,000,000 results for me. With luck, you’ll find something you can use in there somewhere.
Breathing, done properly, is a way for us to return to a calm state, but I have found it does not work unless we create the correct conditions in our bodies. Remember, we’re not just trying for deep breaths: we’re trying to get control of our sympathetic nervous system. This means that deep breathing is more than taking big inhales and slow exhales. It means committing to this process with the intent and expectation of calming ourselves. Half-hearted attempts will yield half-hearted results.
Some good news: we can do deep breathing anytime, anywhere we need it. We can do deep breathing sitting in a chair, laying down, or standing. No matter where we are or what we are doing, the first step is to ground ourselves.
If we’re standing, we spread our feet shoulder width apart, and feel our weight supported entirely, safely, and securely. We acknowledge that we aren’t going anywhere in this moment, and that we are safe to take this time to breathe. If we’re sitting, we feel our hips, thighs, and butts supporting us. If we are laying down, our weight is supported by our backs and shoulders.
No matter which position we are in, before we start, we take a moment to experience our connection to the ground, to the earth, or to whatever is solid and permanent in your universe. Our brains must know that we are safe and secure if we are to convince our emotional systems that we are safe and secure.
Now, we attend to our postures. We straighten our spines, bring our shoulders back, and lift our chins. This increases the capacity in our lungs, which is important because we cannot breathe deeply if our lungs are deflated and collapsed due to poor posture.
When we are ready, we start paying attention to our breathing. We don’t try to change it at first: we just notice it. Is it slow, or fast? Deep, or shallow? We must make ourselves aware of our breathing if we are to change it in a way that brings us to calm.
Next, we notice our environment. What are we touching, what are we seeing, what are we smelling? We are going to close our eyes soon: will we be completely safe? We will not get our parasympathetic nerves to join with us unless our brains are sure it is safe.
When our brains are convinced that we are safe, it is time for us to close our eyes and take our first long, slow, deep breath. When we’re ready, we let the breath out slowly, and then return to breathing normally.
Now, I’m changing the voice of this article. Instead of talking about us, I’m talking to you (it will make the steps easier to follow).
Visualize, in your mind’s eye, a mountain. The mountain is made of granite, and has been there for millions of years, and will remain just as it is, for millions of years. In front of the mountain is a lake, so smooth its surface reflects the mountain perfectly, as well as the fresh fields of wildflowers surrounding it.
Feel how your body, through your feet, hips, or shoulders connects to that mountain and take another deep, slow, breath as you picture the beautiful reflecting lake. Maintain your slow and steady breathing, in and out.
You probably are having thoughts – distractions – coming into your mind. We’ll come back to them shortly. For now, just let them be and keep your attention on the mountain, the lake, and the fields of wildflowers.
It’s time to transition your focus to your breathing. Take a deep, slow breath and exhale slowly. Feel the connection between yourself and the mountain. Accept your connection with it and feel its million years of placid stability and permanence. Keep breathing deep, slow breaths, inhaling slowly and exhaling even more slowly. As you do, notice the fresh air, and the scent of the wildflowers.
Managing Stray Thoughts
Your thoughts, I am sure, are still coming in. Greet them as they arrive; acknowledge them, and then visualize them reflecting off the lake and disappearing in the distance. Yes, some thoughts return. Greet them again, for they are old friends. But, let them know that you will tend to them later, and send them to reflect off the lake and drift off into the distance.
Keep breathing, sensing the serenity, the permanence of the mountain. Keep breathing, slowly, deeply, so that you can appreciate the air, and the scents of the wildflowers.
Now that you are safe, connected with your mountain, and breathing fresh air, notice and welcome any thoughts that continue to come. Greet them as if they are friends, because they have been with you for many visits. You know you can let them be without your attention while you take this break. If some thoughts continue to insist on your attention, know that they bring nothing urgent to you; nothing that needs your attention right now. Promise to get back to them later as you visualize them reflecting off the lake and drifting off into the distance.
Take your time enjoying your break in the fresh mountain air. When you are ready, open your eyes and return. Peace to you.