It strikes me as a curious fact that of the three things absolutely essential to continuing to live – food, water and air – the less dense the substance, the more critical its absence. That is to say, we can live for weeks without food; we can live for days without water; but we can only go for minutes without air.
We tend to give frequent attention to solids: thoughts about food, places to get it, varieties that are available, advertising about it permeate our lives. Liquids also come into our awareness quite a lot, too: bottled water, energy drinks, carbonated sodas, drinking fountains and more are part of our thinking and choices every day. The air we breathe – the intake we can’t forego more than seconds without experiencing some distress – seldom gets a thought.
As a psychotherapist I frequently did training in stress management and found that focus on breathing was critical to success in that regard. When we experience the discomfort of stress our breathing changes, tending to become more rapid and shallow. This results in less oxygen being passed into our blood circulation and begins to impair our body’s operations, especially our brain. This organ only constitutes 2% of our body but it requires 20% – 25% of our oxygen intake. Brains are very sensitive to reductions of oxygen and quickly set off alarms to call attention to the potentially dangerous condition developing, including increased tension in our muscles. This, unfortunately, may add to our sense of stress, further impeding adequate breathing and creating a rising sense of anxiety or even panic: the feeling that something is wrong and getting worse, while slipping in our ability to understand and cope with the situation is one we all know and dread.
Key to unwinding this impending sense of crisis is to breathe and let go of unnecessary muscle tension. The immediate relief we experience when we do so lets us feel more in control once more and provides a basis for beginning to apply greater resourcefulness to the problem at hand. Checking in throughout the day to our levels of tension and taking some good, deep breaths can be of surprising value to keeping us alert and effective. Almost always, we’ll find that we can feel better in just seconds with a few adjustments to our posture and our oxygen levels. Try it now: let your shoulders drop to a relaxed, comfortable position. Let your jaw and facial muscles become soft and smooth. Straighten your spine to let your upper body be balanced, side-to-side, front-and-back. Take several good, deep breaths. Better? Great!
Often, our breathing can be so shallow that we have stale air settled into the lower portion of our lungs, impairing the critical fusion of oxygen into our blood. It’s really good for us to be active enough to breathe hard, to push ourselves so that we exchange our air with noticeable sounds and effort. Even more, consciously pushing out all the air we can for a few cycles of breath will assure that any stale air has a richer replacement. A simple, positive cycle of companionable exercise, breathing fully and staying in tune with our level of muscle tension leads to well-being in surprising ways.
I ka ʻōlelo no ke ola; I ka ʻōlelo no ka make. This Hawaiian saying – words can heal; words can harm (my translation) – is a teaching I strongly believe in. The Hawaiian word for breath is hā. In the Hawaiian Dictionary of Pukui & Elbert, hā is defined as, “To breathe, exhale; as kava after praying and before prognosticating; breath, life. Hā ke akua i ka lewa, god breathed into the open space.” Languages from which English is derived also have many words suggestive of the awareness of the importance of breath. The English word “spirit,” for instance, comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning “breath,” as well as indicating something other than a material object. In English we have familiar words related to the Latin such as “inspire” (to breathe in; to arouse by divine influence or to stimulate to creativity or action), and “conspire” (literally, to breathe together, as a secret plot requires participants to plan in soft voices, requiring whispered exchanges), “expire” (to breathe out; one’s last breath).
Breath is often the focus for meditative practices. Some yogic exercises focus primarily on certain patterns of air intake and release and others usually match postures to the cycle of breathing. Many contemplative traditions involve letting our minds rest in our breath, taking advantage of its constant rhythmic presence to center our focus as we observe the activities of our amazing minds.
Breath: It’s our first real exchange with the physical world when we’re born into it and, at least so far as our body is concerned, our last interaction with it. Let’s give our breath the place of honor and appreciation it deserves in the rest of our life.