What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
Focus on your breath.
No matter what’s going on, whether you’re chronically fatigued or having a panic attack, breath offers the keys to finding balance.
Almost every meditation practice begins by directing the practitioner to focus on their breath. It’s an otherwise automatic process that we neglect. Suddenly, our minds calm down, our breath becomes more steady and expansive, and our cells rejoice! Meditations that focus on breath are often called pranayama. Breath is the life force, and if we spend even a few minutes each day working with our breath, we can dramatically change our brains and bodies.
There are many practices, and I do recommend starting at bedtime, even just laying in bed, by closing your eyes and focusing on the breath coming in and out of your nose. Slow it down, maybe count 1-2-3-4, pause 1-2-3-4, exhale 1-2-3-4, repeat. That’s box breathing. It has clinically proven benefits to calming the mind, bringing the body into parasympathetic for “rest and digest.”
Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama) also accomplishes this. By simply plugging one nostril and exhaling then inhaling slowly, then switching nostrils and exhaling, inhaling, and switching again, the brain can be quickly cleared and soothed. This is great for anxiety, or for anyone struggling to focus on a task or to meditate.
Slowing down the breath allows CO2 to build up a little more in the blood. Most people think we just inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. However, when oxygen is transported by red blood cells, it needs to be replaced by CO2 in order for it to be released. That means that if we only breathe shallow, fast breaths, there can actually be a lack of CO2 to allow the oxygen to be used efficiently. This is why breathing into a paper bag actually works for panic attacks! You’re rebreathing the CO2 the body needs to get oxygen to the heart and brain so it can calm down.
There’s a concept known as carbon dioxide tolerance. Wim Hof specifically focuses on this idea with his breath, guiding students to do deep, slow breathing and then hold their breath on an exhale. This teaches their bodies to better tolerate CO2 and improve the efficiency of their oxygen use. Even a very small deficit in this efficiency can lead to long term problems since that means that many cells of the body may be chronically lacking in oxygen. While this is not anywhere near actual suffocation, this is known as hypoxia when cells are deprived of oxygen even briefly, and then cannot perform their optimal functions. A low oxygen state even briefly can contribute to chronic fatigue, chronic infection, inflammation, and metabolic issues. Everything the body does depends on cellular respiration to produce energy and to oxidize substances for chemical reactions.
This is why even the most perfect diets can often fall short if this vital aspect of health is neglected. And it’s not enough just to exercise. That’s not the same as mindful breathing in a calm, restful state. Practicing consistently will lead to unexpected benefits, including just being more aware of your breath. Over time this can help with issues from “unmindful” breathing, like mouth-breathing, sleep apnea, and just shallow breathing in general. Just like a fire, our bodies need adequate oxygen to keep the fires of life burning. It can be the difference between a slow, sluggish metabolism and a lean, strong body.
It all starts with the breath!