This is the second post in my blog series Essentials of Self Care. To build your self care tool box even more, read my first post in this series, Essentials of Self Care: Sleep.
There are some things in life that I find to be both exquisitely simple and deeply profound. Breath is one of those things. Within minutes or even seconds of our birth we are able to take air into our lungs and then exhale it, an act akin to a beating heart as a sign of life itself. We don’t think about breathing; we simply breathe because we are alive and are alive because we breathe.
Yet breathing is at once an involuntary impulse and a spiritual act of worship. Genesis 2:7 says that God formed Adam from the dust, but that he didn’t become a living being until the moment God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Life could not exist in Adam’s body until Adam received this breath directly from God.
Every inhalation is really an act of receiving, and what we are receiving is God’s gift of life.
Even as we work and think and love we are constantly receiving God’s life-giving breath, not just by a mere intake of oxygen, but by the gift of our need for it.
Though my children have tried it a few times in the midst of temper tantrums, it is physically impossible to voluntarily hold your breath until you die. In an article that originally appeared on his blog, evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains that while science has yet to fully explain why we can’t willingly resist the urge to breathe, it is carbon dioxide, the naturally-occurring gas that we exhale, that necessitates the next inhalation. When I hold my breath my metabolic processes use the oxygen I take in, thereby reducing oxygen while increasing the pressure of the carbon dioxide in my body, and this pressure increase eventually induces the act of inhalation.
Our Creator has instilled in us a constant and undeniable need for Him. By the act of taking air into our lungs we acknowledge our need for God. We cannot continue to live without continuous supply of the omnipresent and eternal breath of life. And yet we rarely acknowledge this gift, this assurance of our health and God’s will for us to serve Him here, unless it is somehow interrupted.
How is breath self care? Because we are continuously breathing we can use this involuntary action as a reminder of who God is to us, how He loves us, has a plan for us, and how He sustains us. The act of focused breathing and drawing attention to our respirations is widely recognized as an effective way to refocus our thoughts. Think of your breath as a self care tool that is always available in any moment. The sheer act of noticing and giving attention to your breathing has a powerful and calming effect on our thoughts and emotions.
Here is my Mindful Breathing Exercise to help you use breathing as a way to care for your body and mind:
- Limit external stimuli.
Take a moment to stop what you’re doing and take your focus off the things going on around you. If you can, sit down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a minute to make a deliberate choice to take your mind off what you were doing or what you need to do.
2. Clear your mind.
This is difficult because it’s impossible for us to stop thinking. Our brains generate both thoughts and internal bodily processes one hundred percent of the time. But while you can’t stop thinking, you do have some control over what you think about. Gently tell yourself that whatever occupied your mind a minute ago is gone for now, and that it is good and safe to take this moment for yourself.
3. Pay attention to your breath.
Ask yourself, for this moment, to only pay attention to your breath. Notice the air around you as a physical presence in the room, invisible yet infused with life and meaning. Inhale slowly, gently, and deeply through your nose. Try to relax your body and think of the air going slowly into your abdomen, not just your lungs and chest. For some people it helps to imagine a balloon that sits just below their lungs, with its open end pointing up toward the mouth. As you inhale imagine the balloon slowly filling with air, beginning at the lowest end and expanding. Then, as you exhale, imagine the air flowing gently but fully out through the opening at the top of the balloon. Another option to help you visualize deep restorative breathing is to picture your breath as water filling a tall vase, beginning at the bottom of the vase near your stomach and slowly filling to the top, then slowly pouring out from the top as you exhale.
Stay in this meditative state and repeat these deep breathing steps for as long as you’d like or as long as you need. Open your eyes slowly and restart your thoughts and activities slowly when you’re done. Take notice of how this deep breathing changed your physical body, your emotions, and your state of mind. This exercise can be shortened or modified as needed during moments of fear, anger, or stress to help you manage emotions and reactions in a more mindful and graceful way. It also works well and can lead to long term stress reduction when practiced on a regular basis.
In the midst of his vision in Ezekiel 37 God tells him to prophecy over a valley of dry bones, saying:
The act of breathing offers us an opportunity to experience God’s power and provision for us in light of our most basic needs. My Mindful Breathing practice helps me refocus my thoughts and my energy and reminds me that my heavenly Father is as close to me as the air I breathe.
Photos by Fabian Moller, Ian Dooley, Havilah Galaxy, Stefan Kunze with text from Word Swag, and Natalia Figueredo