With the holidays looming we will spend the coming months preparing for celebrations, travel and gift giving. The season, with its focus on family, generosity and new beginnings, should be a time of clear thought and joyful intention. Instead we often find ourselves swamped by to-do lists that include shopping, holiday parties, concerts, preparation for large gatherings and end-of-the-year quotas, not to mention the traffic and long lines that are sure to accompany it all.
We can become so focused on our to-do lists that we neglect basic self care, becoming stressed and wiped out. Our minds won’t rest, always worrying about the next responsibility, always thinking about several things at once. A simple and effective way to calm the mind and reduce stress and anxiety is to notice our breathing.
We generally go through our lives without giving much thought to how we breathe. It just happens, whether we are at work, running a marathon or sleeping. Air comes in and goes out. However, some basic knowledge about how the breath functions can be helpful, enabling us to better control it and use it to reduce stress.
The first thing to consider is: We breathe by using muscles.
It can be strange to think about, since the main elements of breathing are obviously the lungs. But the lungs don’t have the ability to move or change shape by themselves, so every breath is necessarily initiated by other muscles. Sometimes it is the ribcage that expands and lifts to cause an inhale. Other times it is the diaphragm, which is underneath the lungs and above the stomach, which pulls down to draw air in. Yes, the air goes into the lungs, but the action of breathing is done by the muscles.
Depending on which of these muscles we use, the simple act of breathing can have drastically different effects on how we feel and how the body and mind react.
Let’s find the two different ways that we can breathe.
The first is by using the chest. The muscles between the ribs lift the ribcage to inhale and lower the rib cage to exhale. To find this, place your hands on the sides of your ribcage and breathe in and out, focusing on expanding your ribs when you inhale. If you feel them lift up and get wide as you inhale, you are breathing into your chest. In this type of breathing, your abdomen doesn’t move much.
Breathing like this–into the chest–is warming and energizing. It stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, our “fight or flight” system. Our adrenaline starts pumping, the heart rate goes up and the body temperature increases. This part of the nervous system prepares us for action, so it is usually how we respond to stress.
When you find yourself in stressful situations, check to see if you are breathing with your chest; if your ribcage is expanding and contracting. If so, you are probably increasing the stress in your body and mind, accentuating the environmental stress that you feel.
The second way the body breathes is by using the diaphragm. When you inhale, the diaphragm engages to draw the lungs down toward your abdomen. This forces the abdominal muscles to relax, and the abdomen sticks out a bit. (Many people don’t like this feeling, but it is perfectly natural and healthy for the abdomen to protrude when breathing with the diaphragm!) Then when you exhale your abdominal muscles pull the abdomen in and allow the air out of the lungs.
To feel this, rest your hands on your abdomen, down by your belly button, and inhale. Try to inflate your abdomen even to the point that it feels like you’re sticking it out. As you exhale the abdomen will draw in, and if you exhale forcefully the abdominal muscles get tight. If you can feel your abdomen moving you are doing abdominal breathing. You may notice that in this type your ribs don’t move.
Abdominal breathing is very calming. It stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system which is considered our “rest and digest” system. It cools the body, relaxes the mind and slows the heart rate. When you are lying in bed very relaxed, you are probably breathing into your abdomen. You will notice your belly button rise gently with the inhale and sink with the exhale. This type of breathing can be useful when we are in stressful situations, bringing ease to the mind even amidst outer turmoil.
You might notice that one way of breathing—the chest or the abdomen—feels more natural than the other. Most of us have one way that we prefer but as you can see, altering this can have a profound impact on our nervous system and how alert or stressed you feel throughout the day. Even if it feels impossible at first, it’s important to be able to breathe in both ways.
The simple action of changing our breathing pattern can change our body, nervous system, mind and perceptions of the world around us.
So when we find ourselves stuck in a checkout line, struggling to pick out the perfect gift or nervous about how the meal we are preparing will turn out, we are probably breathing into our chest. We are heightened and stimulated; our body registers stress.
In these situations, it can be incredibly useful to breathe into the abdomen, letting it expand and contract with the each inhale and exhale. Take five to ten breaths this way, breathing with your abdomen. This will calm your nervous system (stimulating the parasympathetic) and help you relax. Hopefully it will bring you one step closer to embracing the joyful possibilities of the holiday season.
Publisher’s Note: Ida Jo holds the title Yoga Acharya and is head teacher of Ghosh Yoga