How to Catch Your Breath

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If you’ve ever given a speech, been in a dance recital, asked for a raise or asked someone to be your boyfriend/girlfriend, you’ve probably been nervous.  More than likely, you have also been given the advice to “just breathe”.  Breathing is the go-to tip for finding a mind-body connection and calming ourselves down.

I think breathing is incredibly important.  It’s my #2 rule on my Rules I Live By.  But when I tell myself to breathe, that means something very specific to me.  It means consciously breathing in a manner that suits whatever task I’m undertaking.  How I breathe in a voice lesson is different from how I breathe in a backbend.  Both are different from how I breathe before walking into an audition room or going on a job interview.  The main reason conscious breath can be  meaningful to me is that I’ve spent a LOT of time practicing.

Because we unconsciously breathe all day/every day, we take the notion of breathing well for granted.  But just because we don’t turn blue in the face on a regular basis doesn’t mean we aren’t building all kinds of walls that our bodies have to work around to keep the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide moving.  Our bodies are tenacious, and breathing happens even in the face of major obstructions, whether the result of bad habits, diseases or tightness and tension.

Conscious breathing is its own unique skill, and it must be acquired like any other.  The more you are able to practice it- on the subway platform, during a meeting, at a bar- the greater the ability breath has to soothe you, relax you, and help carry you through struggle.

So how do you breathe well?  Here are a couple different techniques to try.

Do these when you have time and a quiet place to work in.  Breathing requires careful attention to and awareness of your body.

1.  Lay on your back, and imagine your torso divided into three parts:  your belly, your ribs, and your chest/collarbones.  Slowly begin to take deep, full breaths.  Notice which of the three areas the breath travels to.  Just. Notice.  Then begin to play, trying to gently manipulate the breath.  Put a hand on your belly and try to feel the breath expand there for a few breaths.  Then the ribs, then the chest.  See if you can breathe using all three of the areas.  Try filling up your belly first, then ribs, then chest.  Exhale the reverse way.  Then switch everything, and fill up chest first.  You might find a wavelike sensation through your body with rolling inhales and exhales.

It’s so helpful to be able to send the breath into different spaces in your body, because sometimes one space is unaccessible to you.  The most common example is during physical activity- if your belly is pulled in tight, the breath has to be able to expand through your chest and your ribs.  But when you are relaxed, deep breaths into your belly can be really satisfying and relaxing.

2.  Crocodile breathing.  Lay on your belly, feet wider than your hips.  Fold your arms and use your hands to make a little pillow for your forehead with your face down to the floor.  Take deep breaths here, and notice your breath moving into your back.  We tend to think of breathing as something that happens only on our front sides, but you have tons of lung tissue that can expand your back body as well.  You might feel your belly pushing into the floor, lifting you away, and your ribcage expanding wide.  Do this breathing with your eyes closed, and it can quickly soothe or cool off your body.  I like crocodile breathing when I feel my mind racing.

3.  Counting your breath.  This is a straightforward idea that can be applied to either of the exercises above.  I’m a little weird, but I do not lay facedown on the floor of a subway car if I’m feeling stressed out.  But I do count my breath.  In and out through the nose is the most effective way of lengthening your breath.  Seal your lips and rather than sniffing, find what feels like the most direct route from your nose to your throat.  You can count to 6, 8, 10 or more depending on what you’re doing (and how fast you count) at the time.  Inhales should be as long as exhales.

4.  Full exhales.  I do a few of these breaths before I go into an audition to calm my nerves.  When we get nervous, we tend to hold our breaths in.  Imagine that sharp intake of breath, that gasp when someone or something has surprised or scared you.  What we need to do is consciously exhale.  So for the full exhale exercise, take a big, slow breath in through your nose and a big breath out through your mouth.  It is almost an “H-A” sound, like you are fogging up a mirror.  Focus on the exhales, and try to make them as complete as possible, so you really feel empty at the end.  They can be longer and more forceful.  This is the best technique I’ve figured out for calming myself in an intense situation.

There are other yoga breathing techniques, such as alternate nostril breathing, kapalabhati breathing and more, but the practices included here are rudimentary and easy (For more advanced breathing, check out The Science of Breath).  I especially recommend them anytime you are waiting for something, or anytime you are feeling bored.  The breath is so constant that it anchors and focuses your mind, and an anchored and focused mind is so fully engaged that it does not notice the time passing while you wait, and it does not have the time to be bored.

Once you learn how to breathe well, to the full extent that your body is capable of, then “just breathe” can really start to mean something to you.  When you need to relax or reset, you can start to access the beautiful simplicity of inhale, exhale, repeat.

Be well.