“How are you?”
It’s just a simple question.
Often more of a greeting, though I have noticed the question has become a bit of a trigger with everything going on these days. The moment I’m asked, I run through the many things I’m juggling: my to-do list, emotions, world events, and more home-based ones too. Then I respond with ‘fine’ or ‘good.’ As I hear myself respond, I can feel my breath shorten and my chest tighten. I feel tense.
As I move through the day, my thoughts and emotions fluctuate. I am bombarded with so much information and so many opinions and ideas. I am left feeling overwhelmed, worn thin, dissatisfied, or stressed.
I inhale and inhale and inhale…and become tighter.
Around 4:45 pm, my yoga students start to arrive for class. I can feel this same feeling on them when I ask them, ‘How are you?’ They rush in. Traffic, work, or family has made them run late. Maybe they listened to the news on the way. Perhaps something on social media is lingering in their mind. Maybe they are reflecting on their never-ending to-do list.
During most yoga practices, I begin with stillness and then a moment to focus on breathing. This time is an opportunity for students to change their pace and separate from their busy days. They can focus their attention entirely on themselves. I often say, “less thinking, more feeling.” For some of them, they haven’t had a moment of stillness or done an internal check-in all day.
Our mind and body are translating our emotions, stresses, and information from everything we encounter. If we become stressed, frightened, uncomfortable, or tense, our breath shortens or quickens. We can be relatively unaware that our breath has changed. We might spend most of the day breathing with only the top 10% of our breath capacity. We usually put more emphasis on the inhale, which increases the heart rate. These responses can put us under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as ‘fight or flight.’
Conversely, when we focus on slowing and deepening the breath, we increase the vagus nerve’s activity, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, referred to as rest and digest. The vagus nerve controls and manages the activity of many of our internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades over the body. Our heart rate slows and becomes regular. Our blood pressure decreases. Our muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it also relaxes, increasing peaceful feelings.
We can transform how we feel by changing our breathing pattern. A pause doesn’t mean that we have to stop everything we are doing and ‘capital-M’ meditate or make room in our schedule for a yoga class. Although there is a lot of benefit from those things, it can be simpler than that. Start by finding little moments throughout the day to notice the breath.
We can substantially change our mood and open up the lines of communication to our nervous system.
There are many ways to do this. Here are some of my favorites:
● If possible, find a quiet place to sit or separate yourself: in the car, before or after an appointment, in your bedroom away from roommates or family members, even stepping out on the porch or balcony to find some space. If it isn’t possible to physically separate yourself, find smaller moments of pause: while waiting for water to boil for pasta, in between emails, or even standing still for just a moment in between chores or errands.
● Pause and notice your breath. Close your eyes. Allow your jaw and brow to soften. Feel the air go into your nostrils and feel it slowly come back out. Notice the way your chest or belly rises on the inhale and gently falls again on the exhale.
● See if you can double your current capacity. Notice the sound of your breath. Notice the temperature of the air when it comes in and if it is different when you go out. Less thinking, more feeling.
● Notice if your mind wanders. Don’t judge it. We all do it. Just notice it and then call your attention back to the sound, texture, and quality of your breath. You could even say to yourself, “this is what my inhale feels like.”
● A good goal could be to notice five breaths. Breathe in and count to three or five and out for a count of three to five. Try to make the length of the inhale and exhale match. Five breaths usually last about one minute. Even that is usually enough to make a significant change.
Of course, a moment to notice your breath won’t fix everything. However, I find it helps me loosen my grip on what I cannot control. It allows me to soften into the flow of what is happening around me. It keeps my mind and emotions more grounded.
After I take a moment to pause-and-breathe, I am more patient with myself and others; I make better decisions, and I am more productive. When I practice this regularly throughout the day, I am so much calmer and at ease when I am asked that simple question, ‘How are you?’
This is part of an excerpt from The Silver Lining Magazine February Edition available in print and digital for purchase. 10% of the proceeds go directly to Cultural Enrichment Center in Fort Collins.
Author: Libby Lyons
FB: Libby Lyons