Discover an effective way to breathe mindfully to turn stress into strength.
None of us can avoid stress, and we may not want to. Some people seem to thrive under pressure. They react to stress by focusing more intensely, which appears to strengthen them. However, others crumble under pressure. How about you? Maybe you’ve had both experiences.
The difference between wilting versus thriving lies in how we react to stressful situations. Do we lose our cool and start following a cascade of negative thoughts and emotions? Or do we channel our stress energy into controlled and productive processes? I want to share something that has helped me and many others deal with stress: breathing.
Breathing is like a shield when we’re under attack from stress. Or it’s like aikido, a martial art that focuses not on blocking but on redirecting an attacker’s energy to throw them off balance. Breathing can help us redirect the energy of anxiety or frustration into productive avenues.Breathing is like a shield when we’re under attack from stress. Click To Tweet
Why is breathing so powerful? It’s the one vital function we have conscious control over.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the critical vital phenomena of our bodies, such as pulse, blood pressure, temperature, and respiration, and plays a critical role in our body’s stress response. These functions happen spontaneously, whether we’re aware of them or not. While we cannot intentionally raise or lower our blood pressure or body temperature directly, we can make our breathing slower or faster. By consciously controlling our respiration, we can alleviate the stress response occurring in our autonomic nervous system and positively affect our other vitals.
Most of us spend little to no time focusing on our breath. After all, it happens whether we pay attention or not. But does it really? Of course, we’ll keep breathing, even when we’re asleep. But the quality and effect of our breath can be quite different depending on our awareness, especially under stress.
Have you ever measured how many breaths you take per minute? If not, give it a try now. The normal breathing rate for an adult at rest is 10 to 15 breaths per minute. What would happen if you cut your usual rate in half? Even lowering it to less than 10 breaths per minute will make your mind feel more relaxed. The ideal rhythm is a breath every 12 seconds so that you breathe five times in a minute. Consciously breathing at this rate increases cardiorespiratory efficiency and provides a surprising sense of groundedness.
3 Simple Steps for Better Breathing
There are many methods of consciously breathing. The best one is the one that works for you. Your body will tell you which approach is best suited to you.
I’d like to share three simple steps for better breathing that will help turn stress from an enemy to an ally.
The first step is to relax our shoulders and chest because this is where much of our stress and tension is held, and these areas are relatively easier to relax than some of the deeper parts of the body. So, start with a couple of deep breaths, exhaling through the mouth. Breathe in through your nose for three or four seconds; if you’re feeling significant stress, two or three seconds is long enough.
If you can, hold your breath for a comfortable moment, feeling the expansion of your chest. Then exhale as smoothly as you can through your mouth. If possible, lengthen your exhalation to four to six seconds, and feel your rib cage relaxing. Repeat this breathing four or five times if you can, lengthening your exhalation a little more each time. Focus on the center of your chest, and imagine any tension you are holding there melting away.
The next area to focus on is your solar plexus, or stomach area. Inhale through your nose for three or four seconds and gently exhale through your mouth for four to six seconds. Focus on relaxing your upper-abdominal muscles.
This might be an unusual thing to feel. If you tend to hold your tension near your stomach (think butterflies in the stomach), you might notice more tension before you sense any relaxation. Keep going, imagining your stomach getting softer and lighter.
As with most things that involve mind and body coordination, relaxation breathing techniques become more effective the more you practice. Try these techniques at home when you’re not under stress, and you’ll find them working better the next time you’re in a stressful situation, such as giving a lecture, resolving an argument, driving in traffic, or taking a test.
Step three is where the magic really happens because it activates our main energy center. In Korean, we call this center the “dahnjon,” and it’s located 1 or 2 inches below the navel and 2 or 3 inches inside the body. If you’ve heard of “abdominal breathing,” then you’ll have some idea of the importance of deep breathing to stimulate this area. By focusing specifically on the dahnjon area, you may tap into something beyond relaxation. With practice, you can feel a precise and powerful sense of your center.
Breathe using the method introduced in the previous steps. If possible, breathe in and out only through your nose, without using your mouth. Concentrating your awareness in your lower abdomen, slowly inhale while pushing your belly out. Pause until you feel a sense of fullness, and then exhale until you get the feeling that your lower abdomen is being pulled in. Hold your breath only to a comfortable degree—not until your chest is tight and your face turns red. Slowly, consistently, and rhythmically repeat the movements of pushing out your lower abdomen as you inhale and pulling it in as you exhale at a pace that is comfortable for you.
Your inhalations and exhalations continue naturally when your body and mind are comfortable. You automatically exhale when you’ve breathed in enough, and you automatically inhale once you’ve breathed out enough. Your lower abdomen will grow warmer, and you’ll get a pleasant feeling of fullness as energy accumulates in your dahnjon as you breathe.
When doing the three-step breathing described above, beginners can place their hands on their chest, upper abdomen, and lower abdomen, respectively. Feeling through your hands the rhythm of each body part rising and falling with your breath will help you concentrate.
Chest breathing and upper abdominal breathing are good for relaxing the body and mind and releasing tension and anxiety. Dahnjon breathing, which focuses on the belly, not only helps with relaxation, but helps build a powerful center in the lower abdomen with regular practice.
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Breathing in Threes: Three In, Three Out
When you only have a little bit of time and you find yourself stressed, you can practice this abdominal breathing method. Inhale three times and exhale three times. This lets you take in and let out more air than when you breathe once each way. I base this on my own experience of exhaling very slowly, several times, bit by bit, when my breathing had stopped after I was thrown from my horse. Inhale, feeling yourself filling your lungs with air, once, twice, three times. Then hold it, concentrating on the feeling of your chest expanding. When you exhale, breathe the air out of your lungs completely, over three outgoing breaths. Feel full when you inhale, refreshed when you exhale. Repeating this just 5 to 10 times slows your brain waves and brings mental stability.
Breathing Consciously Means Loving Yourself
The most important thing in the breathing methods I’ve introduced is to breathe “consciously.” Normally your brain keeps you breathing, but now you’re giving your brain a signal, saying, “I’m doing the breathing.” You’re breathing consciously, not just letting it happen automatically.
Aim to breathe with devotion in each breath. Get the feeling that you’re giving the kiss of life to yourself. Try to do your best, imagining that your body won’t breathe unless you breathe for it, unless you breathe consciously.
Breathing is the highest act of love for your body. Through breathing you can interact with yourself, control your emotions, and give yourself confidence. The more time you spend breathing consciously, the more your composure will increase and the more your consideration for others and your care for nature will grow.
Editor’s Note: This post was excerpted and edited from Ilchi Lee’s new book, The 100-Year Golfer: 7 Arts for a Lifetime with the Game.
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