The Art of Breathing: The Secret to Living Mindfully
Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple breathing exercises.
A flock of paragliders are soaring like eagles on powerful currents of rising air. Far below, a group of children watch in amazement as the pilots practise their aerobatics silently above their heads.
Then, suddenly, something starts to go wrong. One of the pilots loses control of his wing and starts spiralling like a leaf towards the earth.
After what seems like an age, the young man smashes into the hillside. He lies face down on the hillside. Broken.
But he is alive. After a moment of stunned silence, he begins screaming in agony. It will be at least 30 minutes before the paramedics arrive and another hour to reach hospital. Alone, he knows that he cannot afford to lose consciousness in case he never again awakens. So he begins forcing himself to breathe.
Slowly. Deeply. With a supreme effort of will, he focuses his mind away from his broken body and onto his breath. In. Out.
Inch by inch, the agony recedes. Before, finally, he reaches a state of calm tranquillity. Of pure mindfulness.
I was the young man who crashed his paraglider.
And the art of mindful breathing saved my life.
For thousands of years, people have used the art of breathing for equally profound effects on the mind and body. Some have used it for relief from chronic pain. Many more to cope with anxiety, stress and depression. Some claim it led to spiritual enlightenment.
But I’m as spiritual as a housebrick…. so I use it to help me stay calm in a chaotic world and to better appreciate the bittersweet beauty of everyday life.
Breathing seems so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. It is so mundane that many of us have even forgotten how to breathe correctly – and this, as I found out after my paragliding accident, has huge implications for overall health and happiness.
Correct breathing enhances the immune system and helps rid the body of toxins and pollutants. It calms the mind and wards off anxiety, stress and unhappiness. And focusing on the breath with the mind’s eye is the heart of mindfulness meditation, which has been clinically proven to beat depression, and enhance overall happiness, wellbeing, clarity of thought – and even decision-making and creativity.
To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this little exercise with me: Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Place your hands on your stomach. Spend a minute or so feeling them rise and fall as you breathe in . . . and out. Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Allow yourself to relax into the breath’s fluidity.
As the breath waxes and wanes, oxygen and nutrient-rich fluids are pumped through the abdomen, flushing out toxins. The physical movement of the breath in the body also massages the liver, kidneys, intestines, joints of the spine, indeed everything, so they’re kept healthy, supple, and well lubricated.
But there’s also a hidden – and equally important side to breathing. Your breath actually reflects and amplifies your emotions. So incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.
It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress. Breathing then becomes a little quicker and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed.
It’s a vicious cycle….
But there is an alternative. A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm tranquillity. Soothing hormones flow through the body. These calm negative thoughts, feelings and emotions so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply. You begin to relax.
It’s a virtuous cycle….
Unfortunately, most of us breathe incorrectly. This is especially true in the modern world where we often sit slumped at desks for far too long each day while being bombarded with work, emails, calls and messages. This can become even more of a problem if we are under any kind of stress. This disturbs our natural breathing patterns which in turn creates even more stress. It works like this.
Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles that lie between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.
When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working. Instead, they begin tugging against each other, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work. But the secondary muscles are only designed to shoulder 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed.
If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.
Thankfully, to breathe correctly, all you need do is relearn the art of breathing.
The art of breathing lies in paying attention to your breath in a very special way. It’s the heart of mindfulness and as old as meditation itself. You can learn the basics in just a few minutes. Mastering it takes somewhat longer.
Breathing meditations are actually very simple but people often make them unnecessarily difficult and complicated. Firstly, meditating cross-legged in the lotus position is very uncomfortable. You can’t meditate if you’re not comfortable. Take a deep breath . . . and ask why the chair was invented.
Secondly, you don’t need any equipment, mantras, incense, fancy bells, apps, or even a quiet room. In fact, all you need is: a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.
Try this little mindfulness exercise with me.
1) Sit on a straight-backed chair. Place your feet flat on the floor (with your spine one inch from the back of the chair). Be comfortable (with a relaxed but straight back). Place your hands loosely in your lap. Close your eyes.
2) Focus your mind on the breath as it flows in and out. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose and into your lungs. Feel the rising & falling of your chest and stomach.
3) Where are the strongest feelings? Nose, mouth, throat, stomach, chest, shoulders? Pay attention and explore the feelings, especially the way they rise and fall. Don’t try to alter them in any way or expect anything special to happen.
4) When your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. Be kind to yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. Realising that your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the breath IS the meditation. It’s a little moment of mindfulness.
5) Your mind may eventually become calm for a little while…. or filled with thoughts or feelings such as anger, stress, or love. These may be fleeting. See them as clouds in the sky (simply watch them drift past). Try not to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.
6) After five minutes (or longer if you can manage) gently open your eyes and take in what you can see, hear, feel and smell…
7) Repeat twice a day.
You can stream this Breathing Meditation here.
As that short meditation will have begun to reveal, your breath is the greatest asset you have. It’s naturally meditative and always with you. It reflects your most powerful emotions and allows you to either soothe or harness them. It helps you to feel solid, whole, and in complete control of your life while grounding you in the present moment, clarifying the mind, and unshackling your instincts.
The art of breathing kindles a sense of wonder, of awe, and curiosity — the very foundations of a happier and more meaningful life. It grants you the courage to accept yourself with all of your faults and failings. To treat yourself with the kindness, empathy and compassion that you truly need, and helps you to look outwards and embrace the world.
And when you do this, you’ll discover the secret to living mindfully.
You can find out more in my new book The Art Breathing: The secret to living mindfully. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as ‘A marvellously beautiful and sensitive book.’
‘This book is inspiring. Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.