If you want to feel more serene and focused, try breathing! For centuries, people have used awareness of the breath as a means of becoming more conscious and relaxed. Unlike other physical processes – like the heartbeat, for instance – breathing is easy to control and open to a lot of variation.
Here are some simple-to-do, time-honored ideas for playing with your breath to reduce stress and become more peaceful.
Be sure to do only what feels comfortable to your body. If you suffer from shortness of breath, for instance, be mindful not to push yourself too hard.
1. At several points in your day, simply become aware of your breathing. This could be as minimal as saying to yourself, “Here I am, breathing. This is the way I breathe. Good to be breathing. Good to have air to breathe.” Send gratitude to the air with your out-breath. Draw in the air like nectar.
2. How long can you hold your breath? Time yourself and see. Try this once a day for several days and you may find you are able to hold your breath for longer stretches at a time. Nothing heightens our awareness of the importance of breath like stopping it for awhile.
3. Try counting your breaths, and witness how long you go before you lose count or get distracted. Vary the ways you count. Some Zen Buddhist meditations count “one” on the in-breath, “two” on the out-breath, continuing to ten and then starting over again, unless thoughts intrude (which they always do), in which case you start over again with “one” at that point.
4. Consciously vary the tempo and depth of your breath. Pause for a count of three after inhaling, again for a count of three after exhaling. Pauses allow a place of rest and spaciousness to form. Or try doing a short panting breath for a few seconds, followed by a series of long, expanded breaths with pauses. Take note of your reactions, both mental and physical, to these variations on the theme of breathing. Which ones feel most comfortable? Which helped you feel more relaxed or focused?
Adapted from “Earth, Water, Fire, and Air” by Cait Johnson (Skylight Paths, 2002).