From the moment we are born to the moment our souls leave our bodies, we are breathing. It is the one constant thing in our lives, yet our breath is also ever-changing. If we are calm and relaxed, it is slow and deep. If we are anxious or upset, it can be shallow, gasping and tight. We have to breathe, and if we try to stop, eventually our brain will force the issue, making us take an involuntary breath. Yet we can control our breathing to some extent, unlike most other biological functions. Behavioral techniques can lengthen the breath and calm the body, reducing tension and slowing the heart rate. So, we can affect how we feel by changing our breath!
I hardly ever give a thought to my breathing. I don't notice it until I'm feeling short of breath, quite frankly, then I wonder if I'll ever feel full of oxygen again! The typical posture of a stressed out American works against getting a full breath into the lungs. Our shoulders slump forward, our chest caves in and our neck collapses. This reduces our lung capacity significantly and leads to shallow breaths into our upper chest, which only perpetuates tension in our muscles. I feel the effects of a day slumped over my desk in my neck and shoulders, and I bet you have felt it, too! Taking time to stretch the shoulders, open the chest, and take some deep breaths can restore energy during a mid-day slump. Our minds can refocus because our oxygen saturation goes up. All this from a simple stretch at the desk!
The other wonderful thing about the breath is it's constancy. I am working on becoming more mindful, and one way I can come back to this moment at any time is to stop and notice my breath. Listening and feeling the air going in and out of my nostrils grounds my flighty thoughts and zaps me back into the now. This is actually a simple form of meditation anyone can perform, simply sit quietly and "watch" the breath. Notice the air as it flows in and out, and let all other thoughts simply drift away with your exhales. Try this the next time you're living in the future, worrying about all you have to get done. See if it doesn't ground you back into the present. The breath is a gift, keeping our bodies alive and our minds calm and focused, if we use it wisely.