Downregulating Breathing Exercise
A few weeks back, I was bitten by dog in my home. Granted, the dog hadn't attacked me, it had attacked my dog and accidentally bit me when I foolishly tried to pull them apart from the front end. It all happened so fast, a matter of three seconds or less, or so it seemed. I remember not exclaiming in pain or shock, but calmly saying “oh” and clamping my hand down on my arm where he'd bitten. I got up and went to the kitchen, and thought, “ok, that happened, now what?”. The owner of the dog was still in the lounge room reprimanding the dog and exclaiming, “I don't know why he did that! I'm so sorry!”, and it sounded like she was starting to panic. I suggested she put the dogs in the car.
I got a tea towel and put pressure on the bite. When she came back in and had a look, she started to feel faint, and had to sit down on the floor to calm down. I coached her how to breath full breaths in and out of her nose, and to try to focus on extending the exhale a little longer than the inhale. This technique of down regulating the breath, calms the mind and the body. Within a few minutes she was able to stand up, and even helped me bandage the bite. Though she was clearly in shock and had to sit on the couch a while longer before she felt comfortable to drive.
Being in shock can be so paralysing. Your breath becomes short, you forget to exhale and try to take in more air on top of stale air and suddenly you can't get new oxygen and you start to panic. The brain stops functioning and the body shuts down. It's like you are disconnected, someone has pulled the plug. Your anchor back to yourself and your environment is your breath. Your breath is a continuous conversation taking place between your self and your environment. Through your lungs you are literally consuming the substance of life. You can live for weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air.
In sanskrit there is a word for the life energy derived from the breath, prana. And breathing exercises are often referred to as pranayama. Personally, I would put breathing exercises at the top of the list of priorities for health and well being, and the absolute best place to begin as a novice to yoga or meditation. Simply because it takes as little as five minutes a day to see profound results very quickly. I know you might think that you don't have five minutes, but you do. Set your alarm clock five minutes early. Do five minutes before bed. Do one minute at a traffic light five times in one day. You have time. You just need to make the choice to use it.
And the most rewarding thing about making that daily commitment, is that as soon as you get into the habit of practicing any kind of breathing exercise/meditation/mindfulness/yoga regularly, you become more focused, more present in the moment and more effective at everything else that you do. So in fact, instead of using five minutes of your precious time consciously breathing, you are gaining many multiples of minutes of time that you have now freed up by becoming more aware of what you are doing and thinking throughout the day. Win/win!
Practice Down regulating the breath: 1:2 breathing
When you inhale, your heart rate increases, and when you exhale your heart rate decreases. So when you extend your exhale longer than your inhale, you calm your heart rate, and thus your mind and your body.
Benefits: activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), calming and diffusing of anxiety.
When to practice: Anytime throughout the day, particularly before bed rather than first thing in the morning when it may relax you too much to motivate you to get on with your day.
Begin by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position with a straight spine. To begin with, you may like to place one hand on your belly to help focus your attention on your breath. Begin to pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing, without judgement or trying to change it in any way. Observe if it is quick, shallow, deep, erratic, or calm. After a few moments of observation, begin to mentally count the length of each inhale and exhale. If the inhale is longer than the exhale, use the next few breaths to make them even. Once you have equaled out the inhale and exhale, take the next few breaths to begin to extend the exhale a little longer than the inhale. Start by increasing the exhale by one or two counts only, and slowly progress, calmly and smoothly, until your exhale is twice as long as your exhale, but never more. My personal preference is a four count inhale to an eight count exhale. However, if this becomes uncomfortable for you, reduce the ratio until your breathing has become calm again. If you focus too much on getting the count to a certain ratio in favour of keeping the breath calm, you will potentially cause anxiety rather than reduce it. Remember, even extending the exhale just a little further than the inhale, will have a calming effect. Continue practicing the focused breathing for as long as you like, and finish the exercise with 6 to 8 relaxed, natural breaths.
One thing that I am truly grateful for, and am constantly reminded of every day, is that my yoga practice has taught me how to deal with stress like a champion. Long before my yogi days, I remember being in the hardest time of my life, feeling so overwhelmed and underprepared for my circumstances that I literally curled up in the foetal position crying for hours. No coping skills whatsoever.