Learning to Breathe, Learning to Heal

Stress…..we are oh so familiar with this. Most of us live with an elevated baseline of stress and as life happens, our stress levels go up from there. When we are stressed, we have activated our sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that is ready for fight or flight at any given moment. When we live in this place of stimulation, we become hypervigilant, anxious, perfectionist, quick to react, irritable, and then eventually exhausted because it requires so much of our energy to constantly be responding to the world from this place. The opposite of this state is when we have stimulated the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the kind of relaxation we have when we feel fulfilled and satisfied, like having just eaten the perfect meal and are now able to rest. When we are in this state, even our circulation is better which further enables us to feel good in our bodies, happy in our minds, and peaceful in our hearts. To some of us, our parasympathetic nervous system state is like a foreign country that we couldn’t even point to on a map. Stress is so much more familiar, sadly.

Animals are great teachers about our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They are able to maneuver back and forth between these opposing states using the gifts and wisdom of their bodies. Horses for example, can be grazing peacefully in a meadow when suddenly one spots something suspicious a mile away and POW – there they go flying around the pasture like there’s no tomorrow. Horses don’t mess around. They are notorious for their fight or flight instincts which I believe is why they are both feared and revered. But if you just wait a few minutes after the spook, you will see them return to grazing as though nothing ever happened. We humans, however – are not this graceful. Our transition is not this clean. Instead we carry the residue of the fight or flight state around with us all the time, calling it STRESS.

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(This is Cash, a horse I have played with lots over the years. We were just hanging in the arena when he spotted a dog in the field next to us, and sometimes dogs = predators in the horse-mind. And this was his response!)

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 (Then literally, less than a minute later, here is is asking for a cookie!)

We all have our tricks and tools for managing stress, some better than others. But what if you knew that one of the biggest antidotes to stress is free, available at any given moment, and already within you? Get ready: take a nice…long…deep…breath. It’s what the horses do, after all.

What if I told you that most of us don’t breathe correctly – sounds crazy, right? It’s something we do that is passive, that our body just does without our conscious effort, how can we do it wrong? Are you breathing right now? How do you know? Is it the slight sensation of your chest moving out and in? Or the little bit of wind on your upper lip? Believe it or not, many of us have periods throughout the day where we actually stop breathing! And some of us do this at night, too!

How do we breathe properly then? Well, first let’s just get you sitting upright and tall. You want your whole spine to be long and straight but not strained. You are welcome to stand, if that’s more comfortable. Second, it’s helpful to imagine your lungs themselves. They take up quite a bit of space in your body. They extend from just above the clavicle, out almost to the shoulder joints, and down the chest to the bottom of your sternum and almost to the bottom of your rib cage where they meet your diaphragm, a very wonderful and strong muscle that facilitates good breathing. Ideally you would be able to inhale through your nose and then exhale through your mouth. (If for some reason you are unable to inhale through your nose, it’s ok! Just use your mouth for both parts.)

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Now in your mind’s eye, divide the image of your lungs into three parts, the upper, middle, and lower parts. And on your next inhale, see in your mind’s eye, your breath entering the lower part of the lungs. When you send your breath down to the lower part of your lungs, you should feel your whole belly expanding. Welcome to the most neglected part of the lungs! Often when we are breathing, we breathe only in the upper one third of our lungs. What a disservice we do to our lower lungs, our diaphragm, and the organs that get massaged by our lower lungs! Have you ever watched a baby breathe? Or any four-legged? It’s not just their upper chest that moves. It’s practically their whole body! (If you have a tight belt on, you may need to loosen it. Yes – you should feel that lower-lung breath all the way down there!)

Now, let’s check out the middle part of your lungs. This part isn’t as neglected as the lower part but it doesn’t get fully nourished either. It mostly gets teased with a little bit of oxygen. (But teasing with a little air is better than none at all like in our lower lungs!). Put your mind’s eye on your middle lung area and send your breath right in there. What you should feel is a great expansion of your ribs, both in the front and in the back. Perhaps you can even massage the insides of your scapulas with this middle lung breath! Try it! See if you can expand your back side just like you did with your belly! If you are sitting in a chair, you can do this by pushing yourself away from the back of the chair using only your breath. Sometimes if there are ribs that have contracted we can hear them being pushed back out and into place (sounds like little clicking noises!) when we take these deep breaths! Don’t be alarmed, your body will thank you!

And lastly, let’s see what the upper lung has to offer. This is where most of us are breathing, most of the time. That being said, we can make more out of this area than we do. Go ahead, put your attention on your upper lungs and draw in that nice deep breath. Send it out and into your shoulder joints (yes, the lungs almost extend clear out to your shoulders, crazy huh?!). And massage your clavicle and the base of your neck with this breath. Fill it up, all the way. Welcome to the full capacity of your upper lung!

Ok, now the fun part is to link all these parts together. Through your nose, inhale all the way to the upper, middle, then lower lungs. Then exhale just as long as your inhale from the lower, middle, and then upper lungs, Try to have a nice little pause, however brief, between each of these inhales and exhales. Feels good, right?

Simply taking three of these full capacity breaths when we are feeling stressed, can help us to unwind. They send the message to our nervous system that it’s ok to come down just a little bit more. This practice will help to restore our energy and keep us feeling more vibrant throughout each day. And the more we practice, the more our body will build those “muscles” and keep doing it with us and for us. You could make a game out of it and say each time you stop at a stoplight, you get to take 3 of these magnificent breaths. Just a thought. Enjoy!

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(And here is my pup, Orion in his parasympathetic mode, post-peanut-butter-stuffed-kong!)

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