Don’t Forget to Exhale

I’ve been noticing lately how easy it is to hold one’s breath.  Speaking for myself, I hold my breath especially when I am a) anxious and/or b) rushing. During those times, I am ruminating about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, all the ways in which it might not get done, and when it could possibly get done. Of course, it’s all based on some fairly crazy underlying assumptions: 1) there are many problems that I must fix and 2) there isn’t enough time to fix them.

One Alexander teacher taught me a motto that I often forget but wish I didn’t: “I have all the time in the world.” What a lovely motto! There really isn’t as much of a rush as we think, nor are there as many problems as we think. We admire people who live life with equanimity, but we act as “if we just hurry and get everything done, we can get to that wonderful place where we can relax.”  Or, alternatively, we can focus on breathing.

As often as I can remember, I turn my attention to my breathing. It really helps!  For those of you who have had Alexander lessons, you know that the secret to getting back to your breath is conscious exhaling. Most of us are cruising along on a permanent inhale that’s very akin to a panic sensation. However, it is very easy to stop holding: just let your breath out in a long, continuous, silky thread. As you do, think of sighing –but without sinking. Sighing implies that the crisis is over and danger has been averted. Meditation teacher Tara Brach uses the imagery of dissolving: as you exhale, let your body and your “problems” dissolve into the air around you. I also like the chicken soup analogy: let your meat fall off the bones! Just make double-sure your spine doesn’t fall off into the soup, too.

Once you have let the breath out fully but without force, wait for Mother Nature to fill you up with oxygen. Sometimes you have to wait a few seconds as your body calibrates its need for oxygen. Because you have created a partial vacuum, and “nature abhors a vacuum,” all you have to do is open the hatch and the oxygen will come in on its own free will – not yours. Your ribs will feel nice and springy and your new best friend – your diaphragm muscle — will start to occupy a more important place in your consciousness. When you keep your eye on your diaphragm, without trying to control it, it will calm your mind and keep you from spinning your wheels.

Meditation instructors teach that the breath can be an anchor to help us detach from the mental chatter. There are several ways to do that, but one easy way is to notice the sensation of the breath going in and out of your nostrils, or focus on the quiet sound of the air moving out of the nose when you exhale, perhaps doing some mental counting to five, for example. Some more visual people respond to a post-it note cue: “don’t forget to exhale.”

The oxygen you take in will serve you in so many different ways. It is fuel for your muscles, so it helps them relax. It is so very calming and creates an equanimity that is unparalleled.  It enhances your health. It is a source of spiritual strength. For those reasons, quiet your mind and let go of “holding your breath.” It is a lot cheaper than a trip to Tahiti – and it can serve you every day, and any time of the day.