One of the first lessons when learning to meditate is bring awareness to your breath. I was taught to say, “breathe in…breathe out”. The deeper the breath the longer I would make the words: “breeeeaaaattthhheeee iiiiinnnnnn…breeeaaaattthhheeee ooooouuutttt.” Surprisingly this helped. Full disclosure I am terrible at meditation. I am much like Elizabeth Gilbert in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love when she is sitting in the ashram in India “meditating” but her mind is wandering to absolutely everything other than meditation. That’s me. But, that’s another story for another blog post.
My next encounter with the importance of breath came when I began practicing yoga. At the beginning of each session the focus on the breath is drilled into us. We are reminded if we can’t take a deep breath to pull back on the pose a little. “A true yogi knows their limits and does not strain or harm the body for the sake of the pose. Without the breath you are not practicing yoga.” This, along with, “whenever and where ever you are breathing mindfully, whether in the grocery store, your office, your living room, or in your car, you are practicing yoga.” It is a wonderful sentiment. As someone who has fully embraced the practice of yoga it is nice to know that I can practice it regularly outside of the studio.
One day, one of my yoga teachers came to me after class and dropped the brick of realization directly onto my head. I asked her at the beginning of practice if she could just watch me while I did some of the seated postures. For some reasons the stretches were becoming increasingly difficult and I could barely position myself. She observed me, made adjustments during practice, and afterward she pulled me aside. “Your biggest problem,” she began, “is you aren’t breathing.” What? I’m not breathing? Was she kidding? I was huffing and puffing out there (contrary to popular belief, yoga is not a sedentary easy-going practice – I sweat, my heart pounds, and I am winded 30 minutes in – it’s amazing). She confirmed that I wasn’t breathing and that if I focus on my breath the poses would come more easily. So, skeptically, during the next class I paid closer attention to my breath. I still wasn’t convinced she was right. Then, half way through the seated postures I had a Homer Simpson “DOH!” moment. I caught myself holding my breath. I immediately stopped and began the posture again, focusing this time on my breath. Was it perfect? Far from it, but did the breathing make it a little easier? Definitely. I am no where near a perfect yogi and I am completely accepting of that fact and at peace with it. But I can say my stamina in class has improved and my ability to stay focused in the moment has taken a turn for the better.
One of the other places where I have realized the importance of breath is my classroom. As I have mentioned before I teach middle schoolers. I am a history teacher in a low income school. I have some wonderful students and I have some extremely challenging students. It comes with the territory. Now, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I have some anger issues, and nowhere is that more prevalent than with my students this year. I have let my anger get the better of me on numerous occasions. But, as I said in my “Anger” blog post, I do not like losing that kind of control. So as I began to focus on how to curb my anger, especially with my more difficult students, I focused on my breath. Now, I’d love to tell you that all I had to do was “breeeeaaaattthhheeee iiiiinnnnnn…breeeaaaattthhheeee ooooouuutttt.” That was not the case. What I discovered, much like with my yoga poses, I needed to start by just breathing. I found as I got angrier and angrier I was holding my breath. This just made things worse. My body would tense up, my shoulders would tighten, and I would start to feel a headache come on (as a side note this was not an every day occurrence, it was more on the days my students were really pushing my buttons). So, in the beginning as I was taking stock of my breathing, the hyperventilating chihuahua came to mind again. When my anger really spiked, I remembered to breathe, but the breath was shallow and ragged. But, hey, I was breathing, right? Then, as my consciousness improved the breaths would get deeper and deeper. This has saved a lot of stress for me and my students don’t get yelled at nearly as often. I find now, when I get upset, I will look out the window of my classroom and take two breaths to keep myself centered. This serves to douse the flames of my anger. It does not always put out the flame, but it definitely makes it more manageable.
One of my more perceptive students recently approached me after class. It had been one of the more trying days. He said, “I notice you don’t yell as much in class and I notice you’ve been deep breathing. Is that because of your cell phone case?” My iPhone cover is the poster image from World War II Britain that says “Keep Calm And Carry On!” I informed him that yes, my cell phone case does remind me to remain calm and breathe. It may not always work, but it helps my conscious awareness.
How do you react in times of stress? Next time you’re starting to feel stress coming on take a moment to observe your breath. Are you breathing? Are your breaths shallow? Stop for a moment, whatever you’re doing, and take three deep breaths, in and out. Fill your lungs completely with oxygen and then exhale all the carbon-dioxide. With each breath say to yourself (either in your head or softly aloud), “Breathing in I calm my body. Breathing out I smile.” Another quote that I say to myself is simply, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” Both of these come from Buddhist Monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. They have been truly helpful to me; may they bring you peace as well.