Phew, it has been a wild ride the last couple weeks! How are you holding up? Today I want to share a simple breathing technique that you can use as a self help tool at home to help you ease anxiety, release tension in your body, and keep your immune system strong. It is something I have taught some of clients on the massage table or Thai mat but with our current situation with COVID-19 I think we could all benefit from this tool. I've used it multiple times over the last couple weeks to help myself stay centered and grounded and to move from the whirlwind in my head back into my body and my heart.
It is a tool that was taught to me by a few people, including my father, Michael Robbins, whose meditation and chi gong practices always included belly breathing, and an amazing life coach Edie Allen, who really helped me connect the dots of why it works and how the science backs up why so mindfulness practices focus on the breath, and particularly breathing into the belly.
Thanks to a little nudge from my friends at Stone Chiropractic I also made my very first youtube video to accompany this blog post! You really don't need to watch and read as they have much of the same information and it may feel redundant but choose what suites your learning style best and enjoy! If you just want to watch me demonstrate the HOW of belly breathing you can jump to minute 5:10 in the video.
So, before we start with the actual HOW to do this exercise I want to give you a real quick, simplified Nervous System 101: Our nervous system has two main parts:
The Central Nervous System (CNS), which is controlled by our conscious thinking mind.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which controls all the unconscious, automatic processes of our body, including breathing, pumping blood, and digestion, immune response, to name just a few.
Within the ANS we have the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the red zone, our fight/flight/freeze response. And the parasympathetic nervous system as the green zone, our rest, digest, and repair state.
The red zone, our fight or flight response, is driven by adrenaline. And it was what kept us alive for thousands of years when there was a true physical threat, like a bear. And some would argue that this current world with Corona Virus is a true physical threat.
But when we are chronically in the red zone it starts to cause health problems. It becomes hard to get good, restorative sleep, our muscles may be needlessly tense, causing pain, general tension, and inflammatory responses in our body, and our digestion may feel off, affecting our ability to absorb nutrients properly, etc.
So how do we bring out body back into the green zone? You guessed it. The breath.
The breath is the bridge between our conscious mind and unconscious mind. It is the one "automatic" function of our body that we can easily control with just a little bit on conscious effort. And when we do we can affect change in many other unconscious systems in our body that may seem out of our control.
Lets talk about belly breathing. Our diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle, and when we breathe with our bellies we are using it how it is meant to be used. When we breathe in it contracts, pushing down and enlarging the cavity in our chest for our lungs and pushing out our belly. When we breathe out it relaxes, pushing air out. With each breath it gives our heart and other internal organs a massage. And with each breath it stimulates both the phrenic and vagus nerve, two key nerves for regulating our autonomic nervous system.
To get even more specific, with each inhale, our sympathetic (red zone) nervous system is stimulated, and with each exhale our parasympathetic (green zone) nervous system is stimulated. In this way our diaphragm is key to regulating our nervous system.
Check out this article for more of the hardcore science behind this:
So if we can do proper belly breathing, and particularly extend the exhale to be longer than the inhale we have a powerful tool to bring our bodies into rest, repair, and digest mode.
For many of you, when you first try to breathe with your belly it will feel difficult and unnatural. You may even feel like you can't do it. That is ok. With a little bit of time and practice it is easy to learn. And for those of you who can do it easily, daily practice will increase your capacity and allow you to refine your technique.
So how do you do it?
Start with your hands on your belly.
Now breathe gently and regularly in and out. On the inhale you want to push you hands OUT giving yourself a nice buddha belly, like your belly is balloon and your breathe is inflating it. On the exhale suck your tummy in, like your belly is balloon and it is being deflated on the exhale.
If you are having trouble focus on the exhale, sucking your belly in, emptying that balloon fully. Then on the inhale relax your abdomen and push your hands out. Try watching this simple meditative graphic on youtube that many have found helpful: https://youtu.be/aXItOY0sLRY
Do this every day for a few minutes. If it is hard for you at first, try it lying down on your back with your knees bent. Experiment with different positions, such as sitting versus standing, or childs pose. If you are doing it right your shoulders and chest should stay relatively still as you use your belly to breathe.
When you feel ready, start extending the exhale, making it longer than the inhale. Try breathing in through your nose and then out through pursed lips, as if blowing air through a tiny straw. Empty fully, extending it as long as you can. Then breathe in deep and repeat. Aim for an exhale that is twice the length of your inhale.
Soon you won't need the feedback of your hands on your belly to do it. And perhaps this will even start to become your default way of breathing. But if you forget to practice for a while and it feels hard, start with the hands on your belly again.
Breath is life, Prana, and as you practice this you will find your mind becomes more joyful, less fearful, and more clear and calm. Your stress and anxiety levels will decrease while your capacity to take on more will increase. Your digestion and sleep with benefit and become more regular.
Use this technique to help you relax and bring yourself back to the present moment. I find it useful to decompress after a bunch of screen time as many of us are switching to connecting more digitally as we have to stay at home. Or if I have been watching too much news and notice myself in a state of red alert, scared for my future and the future of the world. Being fearful rarely helps, so let this practice help you tap into your gratitude for the simple joys of life in these uncertain times. Let belly breathing help you quiet your mind and bring you back in touch with your body and your heart. Make it a daily meditation with this ten minute youtube or with a simple timer while you sit outside and soak up some sunshine and listen to the birds. See how big you can make your Buddha belly and let me know how it goes!