Blog post by Mary Moscarello. See all Mary’s blog posts here.
How often are we aware of our breath?
Breathing itself is what’s called a reflexive action, meaning we can do it without being conscious of it. Grateful for this function of the body which keeps us alive, we exist, breathing countless times, in and out without knowing we’re doing it.
Consider for a moment the Hindu belief that each person is born with a determinate number of breaths and once all those breaths are used, the person’s life ends. The saying “don’t waste your breath” takes on a different meaning in that context, no?
I’m not suggesting that we monitor every breath we take. That notion is ridiculous – we have many other things to think about, not to mention that many of our breaths happen while we sleep. I am suggesting that we pause once in a while to notice our own breath. At first, count the breath. Assign a number count to how long it takes you to fully inhale, fully exhale. By counting the breath, you work to make the breath count.
Yoga Sutra 1.34 speaks about pranayama. One interpretation of this sutra incorporates the idea that as you increase the time between inhales – you work to slow down activation of the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of our brain that helps us perceive emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness. It also has a role in controlling aggression. In addition to those functions, our amygdala helps us t store memories of events and emotions so that you can recognize similar events in the future. If you work to lengthen the time between your inhales, you stimulate your brain to slow down and even pause knee-jerk reactions. Very helpful in times of conflict, stress or even enjoyment of a moment.
The act of noticing the breath helps us actually “be”. A favorite teacher of mine, Michael Simpson, says (and I’m paraphrasing) that most of the time “we aren’t human beings, we are human doings”. We spend so much time “doing” – way more than “being” that we can fall into a pattern of going through the motions of life without noticing what is actually happening.
Whether you just take five deep breaths or spend five, ten, or even twenty minutes in a deep pranayama (breathing) practice, you are entering a state of being. Just being.
It can help you feel less anxious.
It can assist with mental clarity.
It can improve lung capacity.
It can help you be more mindful with other tasks in your day.
On that last one, I often pause to notice my breath while I’m doing a mundane task – say for instance, washing the dishes or peeling a carrot. In doing this, I find myself really being present with the peeler as it moves down the length of the carrot. I watch the skin curl off and fall. I feel the firm flesh of the carrot in my hand. I see its beautiful orange color. Maybe I’ll cut a piece off and taste its sweetness. Peeling a carrot becomes a meditation and I’m closer to a human “being” something even as I’m a human “doing” something.
Take a pause.
Notice your breath.