Here it is: Take a few deep breaths.
Oh, what a cheat! Are you frustrated by that advice – advice you’ve probably heard all your life? Maybe you’ve tried it and felt bored, irritated, or frustrated by the lack of quick gains. Maybe you’ve been to a meditation group and felt the same kind of cheated. If we’re all breathing, all the time, and nothing seems to be changing, it doesn’t make logical sense that breathing can do much of anything, does it?
In the 1970s, noticing the claims of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation program, Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson began studying TM and ultimately found the greatest benefits of for-profit meditation can also be found in what he termed the “relaxation response.” In his book, Benson explains that when engulfed in the “fight, flight, or freeze” anxiety reaction, we can practice the ability to slow down that reactivity in the body (that is, relax the muscles and organs) and allow more blood and oxygen to flow more effectively, by way of a few simple steps: Sit comfortably, relax your muscles, become aware of your breathing, and keep focusing on your breathing for several minutes.
Benson and a cavalcade of other researchers and neuroscientists soon found lots of ways in which deep breathing helps to calm specific parts of the body and nervous system. They also found that by practicing the relaxation response (you can call it meditating), we can in time increase our ability to make choices in the moment rather than react to our environment. By practicing this choosing, we create new brain grooves that allow us more and more to be in control of our lives.
Still, most of us find it difficult to make the choice to make time to sit in our apartments and focus on breathing for ten minutes a day. We’d prefer a gimmick. I prefer a gimmick. I’d like to share two of my favorite relaxation/meditation gimmicks with you.
The first gimmick is one I learned from one of my favorite Living Yoga teachers:
Lie on your stomach, holding your elbows, making a kind of a tent between your armpits and the floor. Place your forehead on your forearms, if that’s comfortable. This is what yoga folks call “crocodile pose.”
From this position, it’s almost impossible to breathe quickly, or from the chest. (Adults tend to breathe that way, while children almost always breathe more naturally, slowly and from the belly.) Diaphragmatic breathing does many things simultaneously: it strengthens the immune, circulatory, and digestive systems; increases the amount of oxygen you take in; and, in so doing, forces a relaxation response by slowing down the body and mind.
In many upsetting situations, it’s difficult to find the space to lie down on the floor. Crocodile pose is a good go-to to practice deep breathing, but might not be the most helpful in a moment in which we’re triggered to fight, flight, or freeze. This second gimmick is more socially acceptable:
Stand up straight. Notice that you’re likely breathing from the chest. Now, interlace your fingers and put them behind your back. Notice that you’re likely breathing from the belly. Notice that your breathing is probably slowing down a bit. Notice any changes in how you feel. Keep your hands behind your back for just two minutes, and focus on the sensations of breathing.
But as they say at the end of the book reviews on Reading Rainbow, “You don’t have to take my word for it…”