Our little village on the Hudson River is in the midst of an apparent Twilight Zone episode. It all started last Wednesday evening when several of our residents were attacked by a coyote. More attacks in a bordering city took place on Thursday, leading our schools to invoke an emergency policy of banning students walking to and from school. Protocol required adults to descend upon our schools at dismissal and enter the school buildings to sign out each student, one by one. Imagine the parents who had children in each of the separate elementary, middle and high schools. To say it was chaotic is an understatement.
Friday brought the arrival of a gigantic Nor’easter. Inexplicably, school wasn’t canceled. As the snow and sleet intensified and the winds kicked up, the district decided to close school early. Now, we had an emergency early closing with the same anti-coyote protocol as the day before. By the time I arrived to pick up my daughters from school, one road in my neighborhood had already been blocked by a downed tree and power lines. To say it was scary and frustrating is an understatement.
At 11pm Friday, we lost power and it’s still out. We’ve been told by the utility company that it should be restored by tomorrow, maybe later. We are currently under a Winter Storm Watch as another Nor’easter is approaching. Forecasts predict eight to twelve inches of snow will fall in our region by Wednesday night, not to mention the wind that accompanies every Nor’easter. Nor’easters aren’t unusual here. But to have two significant ones within a week of each other in March is as rare as coyote attacks less than 20 miles from New York City. To say it’s stressful is an understatement.
Bad weather and coyote threats have closed my favorite gym, the outdoors, since Thursday. The havoc and lack of electricity have made it impossible to get in a workout of any kind. Exercise is my stress reliever. All this chaos, worry, frustration and stress with no outlet isn’t healthy. Now is the time to breathe.
Breathing, of course, is natural. And breathing has its place in structured exercise. Whether it be the rhythmic breathing during cardio workouts or deliberate inhales and exhales during the eccentric and concentric movements of strength training.
Breathing is just as important as movement in mind-body exercise, such as yoga. This is mindful breathing and very different from breathing we do sub-consciously or even during traditional exercise. Mindful breathing is also essential for the latest holistic fad movement – meditation. Whether one is practicing centering meditation or spiritual meditation, such as prayer, breath control is a central part of the process.
The good news from this new-found Western interest in Eastern-based traditions is the proven health benefits – physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional – from practicing meditation. But, building a practice of meditation takes time, patience and persistence – three things in which our culture has limited reserves. Luckily, you don’t have to have the discipline of a Buddhist monk. Benefits can be realized with short bursts of mindful breathing.
How to Breathe Mindfully
First, one needs to learn how to breathe properly. Normally, we tend to breathe shallowly, incorporating mostly the upper respiratory system. For mindful breathing, we must breathe deeply from the diaphragm:
- Sit in a comfortable chair, preferably without arms. Place feet flat on the floor, directly beneath your knees. Maintain a straight back, neither leaning forward nor back. Roll shoulders back and down, head level, facing forward.
- Place your right hand over your heart and your left hand on your belly, just beneath the diaphragm.
- As you inhale through your nose, your belly (left hand) should rise first as your diaphragm leads the breath, your right hand (chest) should rise next as your lungs fill with air.
- Exhale through your mouth or nose. The lungs should empty first, with right hand falling, then the left hand will follow.
- Try to practice this for 1-2 minutes at least once per day until you’ve mastered the technique without using your hands as a guide.
Now you can begin your mindful breathing practice:
- Choose a quiet spot. Sit (or lie down) in a comfortable position for you. The key is good alignment throughout the length of the spine so breathing isn’t inhibited.
- Many people benefit from playing white noise or soothing, instrumental music to block intermittent, ambient sounds.
- You can continue to place your hands over your heart and belly, if you wish. But, your arms won’t fatigue if you rest them in your lap while sitting in a chair, on knees while sitting cross-legged on the floor or by your sides on the surface while lying down.
- Begin with a 4-count each on the inhale and exhale and cycle through for 1-2 minutes (8-15 breath cycles).
- As you get more practice, lengthen the count during inhales and exhales. The more breath cycles you do, the more benefits you’ll realize. But, even if you only have time for one or two minutes of practice, one or more times a day, you’re way ahead of the game in terms of de-stressing and feelings of well-being.
From here, you can spring board to a meditation practice, if that’s your goal. But mindful breathing alone has unlimited benefits. You can use it when stuck in traffic, before having a difficult conversation or after encountering a rude person. Or while you’re sitting in the dark with no electricity, avoiding coyotes and awaiting the next snow storm! Deep breaths…inhale (1, 2, 3, 4)…exhale (1, 2, 3, 4)…Namaste.