During the last four and a half years I have written and published every post here on SMART Living 365. But as Thom and I prepared for a three week trip over the holidays, I decided to invite other bloggers I enjoy and admire to contribute and share their SMART advice. Today’s Guest Post comes from author and writer T.O. Weller on her blog. Never Too Late To Write. And even though T.O. lives in Canada, north of Toronto, and we’ve never met in person, from the first time I read her writing it was as though I had known her for a very long time. I hope you enjoy this post, and I strongly encourage you to check out her blog if you get a chance. Thank you, T.O., for sharing your SMART, thoughtful, and authentic writing with us all.
The holiday season is upon us. Most of us are plenty busy to begin with, but add the extra load of family gatherings, parties, gift-buying, home entertaining, vacation getaway planning, … and the list goes on, and on, and on. Bottom line: this time of year can be extremely stressful. But, does it have to be? Is there a SMART way to de-stress the holidays?
Yes! And it won’t cost a penny. It won’t even take a lot of your time. All you have to do is just follow these three steps:
Step one: Relax your shoulders and straighten your spine. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Step two: Now close your eyes and repeat step one.
Step three: Combine steps one and two for three breathing cycles but, this time, try to be a conscious witness of your body breathing you. Some questions to ask yourself may include: Do you breathe through your nose or your mouth? Which parts of your body move with the breath? Is it easy or labored? Where are your shoulders and how does your neck feel? Does your belly move with your breath or does it stay tight and rigid?
If you’re like me, it got a lot harder at step three. Maybe you didn’t even get that far—I mean, who has time to breathe? (Sounds strange, doesn’t it?) You might even be extra busy right now; it’s the holiday season, after all. But, let me ask you this: Do you remember when you last took a long, deep, cleansing breath?
As we’ve been told many times, our body reacts to our tensions, anxieties, and fears. It’s the evolutionary instinct commonly referred to as “fight or flight”. We have to be ready to save ourselves. But, that ‘busy-ness’ that stresses us out is not really the same kind of threat that our ancestors experienced. Even if we don’t feel like we’ll survive if we miss a deadline or if we’re late for an appointment, logically we know we’ll live.
The trouble is, our body doesn’t know the difference. If our “fight or flight” kicks in, a series of hormones are released that help us become super-focused while increasing our heart rate, respiration and perspiration. All done to allow us to stay safe. As our breathing grows more rapid and shallow, we exhale more CO2 than usual. After a short period of prolonged shallow breathing, low levels of CO2 will alter blood pH which, in turn, impacts enzymes, organs, and muscles. Psychologically, low CO2 contributes to even more feelings of fear and anxiety. That cycle then becomes self-perpetuating: those increased feelings of fear and anxiety trigger our “fight or flight” response, and on it goes.
How do we end that cycle? It turns out the problem and the solution are one and the same: the breath. When our breathing is healthy and balanced, the “fight or flight” signal will shut down and trigger the more favorable “relaxation response”. When we’re relaxed, it doesn’t just feel good: our immune system is activated, along with enhanced cellular, hormonal, and psychological processes. Breath therapy has been shown to alleviate (or even cure): migraine headaches, chronic pain conditions, hypertension, epilepsy, asthma, panic attacks, coronary heart disease, and menopausal hot flashes.
It’s also commonly believed that deep, health-giving breath will expand our spirit. Throughout time, cultures, and religious faiths, breath and spirit have been inextricably linked. In Sanskrit, prana means “breath, spirit or universal energy”; in Japanese, ki is air/spirit. In Greek, psyche pneuma meant “breath/soul/spirit”, and the ancient Hindu masters called the human soul “the one who breathes.” In the Bible, humans are given “the breath of life” and Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th-century mystic, described prayer as “breathing in and breathing out the one breath of the Universe.” The Buddha, in one of his most fundamental spiritual practices, instructs students to meditate on the breath.
Molly Larkin, in her new book The Fountain of Youth Is Just a Breath Away, elaborates on all of the above, along with many other instances of how our cultural and belief systems consider the breath and spirit synonymous. As she so eloquently expresses that amazing idea:
“Think about it. We are breathing the same air our ancestors breathed; the same air the spiritual masters such as the Christ and the Buddha breathed.
We are connected to every living thing through our breath. Everything breathes, and breathes with us.” (p. 2)
Knowing breath is so central, so essential, is one thing, but the key is giving ourselves the ‘breathing space’ that we need. It’s the difference between knowing and doing. Larkin provides a number of exercises helping us steadily become reconnected with our breath. She expands on them even more by linking each one to the energy chakra it supports. Regardless of what you start with, she recommends that you do it for no more than a few minutes in the beginning.
(Personal side note: I mistakenly stopped doing breathing work this year—as it happens to us all, life disrupted my usual routines. But, in a matter of two days … yes, that’s right, two days … I started sleeping better and my hot flashes were reduced. The only thing I had changed in my day was the addition of what Larkin calls the basic exercise for abdominal breathing.)
Another helpful book is one I’ve had on my shelf for many years: The Breathing Book, (1996). In it, author Donna Farhi reminds us that full-body breathing is what we were born to do and what we’ve forgotten through the course of living. It is what she calls the “essential breath”:
“At one end of the spectrum is the unconscious, involuntary breath; at the other end is breathing that is controlled and regulated by the will … between these two extremes lies the “essential” breath, a conscious flow that arises out of the depth of our being and dissolves effortlessly back into our core.” (p.9)
Even though we may have forgotten how to breathe this way, the memory remains. Farhi guides her readers along the path of letting go of what caused our forgetting, to return to the breath of our beginnings.
That breath of our beginning is what gave our bodies life beyond the womb and, with our last breath, our bodies will pass away. In between, the breath is our constant companion: it rises and falls, ebbs and flows. It both moves us and stills us. It is within our control while just beyond our grasp. It’s clearly complex and yet so obviously simple. It’s subtle, yet powerful. It calms, nurtures, strengthens and revitalizes. It would therefore seem to be rather SMART for us to ‘catch our breath’, ‘take a breather’ and give ourselves ‘room to breathe’ during this holiday season … and throughout the year, 365.
T.O. Weller has been writing her entire life, but only recently started calling herself “a writer.” She is also a teacher and reinventor, and is currently working to build a community of fellow ‘second-acters’ through her blog, Never Too Late To Write.
Please make T.O. welcome in the comments below.