Okay sure, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely breathing already, I’ll give you that, but what is the quality of your breath?
Breath is at the root of everything our bodies do. And even though I know this–and I even teach this–I regularly forget to really breathe. Multiple times a day, I’ll check in to find myself holding my breath or breathing only into and out of the top part of my chest.
Breath and Behavior
When I work with actors (as a part of Interactive Theatre Carolina) or when I teach yoga, I start exercises with or even center entire lessons around the breath. New actors will often glance around wondering if I’m for real. I can see the wheels turning in their heads: “What does this have to do with being onstage and laughing and yelling and crying and looking believable?” Well…
What happens when you get onstage? People look at you. It’s stressful. You get nervous. What happens when you get nervous? Your breath gets shallow and fast. What happens when your breath gets shallow and fast? Your voice gets softer, your movements are compromised, and your attention is less available to the people trying to interact with you.
Even if you have absolutely no theatrical aspirations, our breath is linked to stress, and being aware of our breath can help us manage stress.
Breath and Health
It’s not news that our muscles, organs, brains, and other innards function best when they’re provided oxygen and rid of carbon dioxide. Think of the unhealthy chain reactions that can happen when we regularly shortchange our physical selves of the breath we need.
The sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for the “fight or flight” response), while evolutionarily useful for getting us through dangerous moments (like…if you find yourself needing to outrun a lion), still gets triggered when we’re stressed (like…when your printer jams 5 minutes before you’re supposed to turn in that thing that’s now crumpled in the paper tray), and when engaged too often, this reaction takes an understandable toll on our bodies.
AND HERE’S THE THING:
If we’re not breathing to the best of our abilities even in times when we are NOT stressed, it still makes our bodies feel like we ARE stressed.
Life is stressful enough, y’all. Why would we do that to ourselves?
I can’t answer for you, but I can speak for my own bad breathing habits. I’ve started to watch and I notice I hold my breath when feeling guilty, when pretending to listen to someone but thinking about something else, when trying to walk quickly because I’m late, when avoiding something, when not being present—just to name a few. See if you can notice your own sticky moments. It can be revelatory. And shifting the experience of those moments is as simple as inhaling deep into your stomach and letting the breath slowly out.
AND ANOTHER THING:
As a young woman, I was taught–like many others–to suck in my stomach to keep myself attractive. I’d be lying if I told you that I’ve totally gotten over that, even though I know it doesn’t feel good, it robs me of breath, and it’s a messed up idea. Why should I stress my body out daily in an attempt to satisfy some unhealthy thin ideal I don’t even agree with? But letting go of these habits and these old ideas takes practice.
Ever gotten the advice to change the way you react to things you cannot change? Depending on the situation…that can be really annoying advice. And I’m not seriously going to tell you that deep breathing will solve all of the things that stress you out or even dismantle the social structures that perpetuate a thin ideal.
But breathing deeply is good for you. And it’s a little thing you can definitely do. And it will help to keep you healthy so that you CAN do the important stuff…like dismantle the social structures that perpetuate a thin ideal 🙂
But you don’t have to just take my word for it…