This is an easy breathing exercise that is very useful. The goal is to take a deep breath, which sounds simple, but is a powerful way to calm both body and mind.

Put one hand flat on your chest, over your breastbone, and the other hand flat on your belly, over your belly button. Sit or lie comfortably so that your chest is not constricted (don’t hunch forward over a computer, for example). Breathe in, and as you do, notice how your hands move or don’t move. Breathe out slowly. The goal is to breathe deeply and slowly so that the hand on your belly moves more than the hand on your chest.

When you take a full deep breath, your diaphragm, below your lungs, pushes down to move your stomach and other abdominal organs out of the way so your lungs can expand. As a result, your belly goes out just a little bit. If you constrict your breathing and don’t move your belly, you end up breathing into just the upper parts of your lungs, maybe even moving your shoulders more than your belly. This shallow breathing is not as efficient, and causes you to take more rapid breaths. It also makes your whole body get more tense: your heart beats faster, your muscles are likely tighter, your hands are a little cooler and your digestion may slow down.

(Warning: Science!) Biologically, this type of shallow breathing raises the activity level of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, in spite of its name, is in charge of the “fight-or-flight” reflex. Most of us have plenty of stress, so the sympathetic nervous system gets plenty of work. We need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to balance it out. Deep breathing does this by not only slowing the respiratory rate but also by activating the vagus nerve where it passes through the diaphragm, which is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system and acts to lower the heart rate and blood pressure. It, along with the rest of the parasympathetic nervous system, signals the body that it can devote more time and energy to rest and repair.

This is why taking a deep breath is always the first step to grounding and centering. It’s the perfect way to calm your body physically, and that makes it possible to calm your mind and spirit, to reconnect with what’s going on inside of you and outside of you. So the next time somebody tells you to take a deep breath, try it!

 

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