The idea of being conscious of your own breathing and just letting it happen seems like a paradox.
This is the conundrum one of the participants in my recent Guided Constructive Rest session presented me with. And she wanted to know what to do about it.
I know what she means. When I first tried to simply “observe” my breath I always felt that I started to interfere with it in some way – that I was controlling it, not just watching.
I have a distinct memory of reading Mind and Muscle by Elizabeth Langford around the time I started training to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique. Throughout the chapter on breathing, the main premise of which, if I remember correctly, was that we shouldn’t interfere with our breathing, I felt like I was “doing” my breathing the whole time. I didn’t know how to observe it without getting involved.
This is perfectly normal, and my ability to observe my breath has changed dramatically since then.
When we can be in more of an observer role, focusing on the breath can be such a great stress relief tool. It can help anchor us in the here and now and help us calm our nervous system.
I shared some thoughts about this conundrum at the session, but over the next few days I returned to it often. I have clarified my thinking and have some additional ideas about it.
First, an important factor to consider is that the simple act of placing our attention on – being conscious of – our breathing does change it. This is completely different from intentionally manipulating or controlling your breath. It’s part of the paradox. When you simply observe your breath, you don’t know what will change – there is no agenda. Sometimes the change is indiscernible, and at others quite dramatic, but it is invariably for the better. It’s amazing what can happen when we get out of the way.
So how do we get out of the way? How can we develop this skill?
Here are four simple ideas to help you get out of your head so your breath can flow – so you can BE more in that observer, rather than “doer,” role:
#1 Visualize Your Breath from the Inside
Many of my clients find the following visualization helpful. Imagine your ribcage is a very flexible barrel with moving walls and a moving floor. Then place yourself, like a little speck of your own consciousness, inside the barrel. From this imaginary vantage point, you can observe the movement of your breath as if from the inside. As the breath comes in you watch the walls and floor of the barrel all gently move away from you, and as the breath goes out you watch the walls and floor of the barrel gently come back toward you. I use this idea in my Constructive Rest Audio Guide and sometimes include it in my monthly Guided Constructive Rest sessions.
#2 Think Constructively
You can use your thinking to help you get out of the way. Here are a couple of thoughts my clients find particularly helpful:
- “My breathing is free.”
- “My body breathes me.”
As with all constructive thinking (a way of thinking intentionally, and a skill my clients learn), the idea is to think very lightly with little or no attachment to outcome. You’re sending out the message and trusting that your subconscious self will respond, but you are not in control of how it does that. Your job is simply to do the thinking and let go! And you can observe what happens. This is a skill that takes some practice.
#3 Breathe Out
If you notice that you are holding your breath, don’t try and take a breath. Instead, gently breathe out, which will then stimulate the inbreath to just happen. It can be calming to do a round of round of three breaths as follows: Breathe out gently through the lips as if blowing out a candle, then let the lips come back to together as you observe the in-breath returning through the nose. When you’ve finished, allow your breath to return to normal. Of course, you are manipulating your exhale in this instance, but this is very different from the usual type of breathing exercise. Working with the exhale, on occasion, is helpful because it stimulates the in-breath to happen and is very different from taking a breath. Importantly you are an observer of this part of your breath cycle, as much as possible, simply allowing the breath to come in. It also gives you practice with observing and allowing, while also giving you a “doing” role during the exhale.
#4 Get REALLY indirect!
You don’t have to be thinking about or observing your breath to encourage full natural breathing. Thinking any thought that encourages release of excess tension indirectly always affects your breath for the better. Some general “constructive thoughts” my clients find helpful include:
- “I am free to notice ease.”
- “I am free to receive the support of the ground.”
- “I am free to notice the space around me.”
Try them out for yourself and see what you notice. Remember, the idea is the think each thought very lightly with little or no attachment to outcome. Think the thought and let it go!
There is one last, and important, breathing paradox that I want to mention. For most of us, awareness of our own breath is a great way to reduce stress and become more present and grounded in the here and now. For a few people, however, focusing on the breath in any way is challenging – often due to past breathing issues or trauma associated with not being able to breathe – and can therefore induce stress. If this is you, I encourage you to go for the indirect approach, as I mentioned in point 4. Anything that helps you feel more at ease, that helps you release excess tension, will help your breathing (BodyIntelligence anyone?!). That way you can encourage healthier breathing patterns without having to directly pay attention to your breath at all.
Awareness of the breath can be an effective, in-the-moment, stress relief tool. Use these strategies to help you get out of your head and let your breath flow!
Do you have other ways that work well for you?
Or do you find it challenging to be with your own breath?
I welcome your feedback. Please leave your comment in the space below.