Breathing is an incredibly powerful healing tool. I’ll show you why.
Let me paint you a picture:
It was a random night in January, 2008 at 3am. I was on my hands and knees scrubbing my bathtub and bathroom floor. Hands shaking, as though I were experiencing something much more chemically dangerous than adrenaline.
Once that was done, I got up and made lunch for the week: a giant pot of dal. The sun wouldn’t be up for hours, but I needed to keep myself busy.
This is what hyper-vigilance and insomnia looked like on me. (Hint: it was not a good look.) This moment was a breaking point for me in my journey from burnout to healing. Though I call healing a journey and self-care a practice. You’re never really done with either – at least I’m not.
What I needed were coping mechanisms.
Yes, I also had deep, existential healing to do on myself. I had excavation to do on behalf of my mental health and physical well-being. But in the meantime, I needed tools. I needed a set of practices that were simple, effective, and didn’t require leaving my apartment.
I fell into a “I’m going to try everything under the sun” phase: acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, chiropractic, yadda yadda. You name it, I’ve tried it.
What I found was breathing.
Through the wisdom of a couple of yoga teachers, I found pranayama, yogic breathing practices that could shift energy on the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual planes. While yoga asana (the actual poses) was profoundly helpful, the breathing practices were perhaps the most powerful.
I couldn’t always muster the energy or motivation to actually do a sun salutation, but breathing I could do from my bed. And, ultimately, I slept. I healed.
The power of breathing: cause and effect
Breathing is an incredibly potent tool that we can access any time, anywhere, regardless of ability, body size, health status, etc. It is available to you in any moment. No fancy equipment or advanced training required.
All it takes is a bit of mindfulness, some curiosity, and a willingness to be present with what arises.
Below are just some of the benefits of a regular breathing practice.
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When I’m feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, I’m usually not in a state of awareness that’s aligned with how I enjoy feeling. Breathing brings me back.
It brings me back into my body. It helps me to ground myself in the present-moment sensations of my body. My lungs, my limbs, and everything in between. Simply through breathing, I can notice the rest of my body, because it’s all connected. This fullness of awareness in the body is what some practitioners call “embodiment.”
Breathing also brings me back to my intuition. I’ll talk more about how it affects my mental state in a minute. But I will also say that my intuition is my most important healing tool. Whether I’m working on my own healing or facilitating that for others, I rely on my intuition. Just by connecting with my breath, I’m also able to connect to that inner knowing and experience.
Finally, breathing gives me awareness of the present moment and the place in which I find myself. It places me in time and location, even when I’m spinning out to other times (past or future). Or if I’m caught up in thinking about something that’s happening elsewhere. Through my breath, I can come back to the here and now.
Breathing helps me to cultivate spaciousness in my interior space. It allows me to slow the racing of my thoughts. It allows me to set down my attachments to whatever emotions are coming up. I’m able to let things go, or at least not cling so tightly.
With a few breaths, I can put space between thoughts and emotions that otherwise seem to be looping or piling on top of one another. This makes way for reponsiveness, instead of reaction. In that space, I can tease out the finer points of what’s going on.
This level of discernment lets me decide which thoughts and emotions I want to buy into – and which I want to set free. The breath gives me a buffer between me and the drama that my mind creates. It offers reprieve and spaciousness in the face of rushing, suffering, or unhelpful inner narratives.
Ease isn’t necessarily my default setting. As someone who has faced anxiety and insomnia many times over in this lifetime, breathing is one of my go-to practices to infuse calm into my day.
As I mentioned before, breathing practices are phenomenal at diffusing stress and worry, and at creating a felt sense of calm. When I breathe mindfully, I can often discover not just the dissipation of worry, but its cause. Once I know the root of what’s riling me up, I can often address it head-on.
Breathing brings me back into balance. When I’m rushing through tasks or my day, just a few breaths, slowly and deliberately can return me to my calm center. I remember that I don’t have to do it all. I remember that perfection isn’t required. Instead, I can rest in a sense of balance, of work without striving.
Finally, breathing has completely revolutionized my relationship with sleep. I used to experience long bouts of insomnia many times per year, waking in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. Now, I practice a few rounds of breathing techniques and can often drift off before I know it.
Breathing is a reliable, intuitive, and powerful way for me to heal in any moment.
I can take my energy from stressed to settled in moments. Breathing allows me to access my inner knowing, in order to stay curious and present, at any time. It’s fabulous for insomnia, for travel, or for difficult moments.
I believe that what we’re really here to do is to diminish suffering. Which is what breathing does, on every level of being. It works on our physical, mental, emotional, and energetic bodies. It is empathetic, not forceful. Best of all, it already belongs to us.