The Power of Breath Awareness
By Dr. Lisa Cowley

As we age, we create habitual patterns of thinking due to the ways we respond to stimuli. As we become more entrenched in these habitual patterns, it may be difficult to change, even when your life depends upon it. One example is remaining in a conflictual marriage, which research shows will not bode well for longevity for each individual. However, you hang on to the known because sometimes the "devil you know is better than the one you don't know." You may be remaining stuck in a dead-end relationship due to fear of change. There are many other examples of ways you can feel stuck in life; a career that no longer sustains you, constantly gravitating toward poor eating habits or not exercising.

How to break out of these habitual patterns of thought and behavior and change the course of your life? You may find it helpful to seek out the help of a therapist, but sometimes that goes just so far if you don't incorporate some healing strategies. Getting out in nature, moving your body, journaling, meditation and breath work are just a few ways to ground yourself in these uncertain times. Breath awareness may be the easiest of these activities because it can be done in small baby steps and if someone has restricted mobility due to health challenges or another impediment, it can still be practiced at any time and any place.

Every moment you are breathing you are inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide.  You don’t even have to think about it. It is a physiological activity that happens naturally and involuntarily. However, by not being aware of this natural process you may be breathing incorrectly and therefore contributing to a stress response.  How does this happen? There is a reciprocity between breath and your mind due to both being a part of the automatic nervous system and shallow chest breathing instead of deep diaphragmatic breath has been shown to activate stress.

Right now, stop what you are doing and take a moment to slowly, deeply and evenly inhale and exhale. Are you breathing through your upper chest or are you breathing deeply from where the diaphragm sits? By placing the palm of your hand on the center of your chest and the other hand on the lower edge of the rib cage where your abdomen begins, you should feel your rib cage expand and abdomen rise when inhaling through your nostrils. When exhaling through the nostrils, the opposite should occur.  There should be relatively little movement of the upper chest. When practicing this technique, you should goal for taking sixteen to twenty breaths per minute.

It is recommended that you practice this breath awareness technique frequently throughout the day so that it will become second nature. After several weeks of daily practice, note if something inside you feels a bit different.  Perhaps you begin to feel calmer so that you can cope better with the task at hand. Maybe you sense that you are more in tune with your surroundings because you are slowing down and noticing not only your breathing, but other things that have fallen off your radar for some time. Maybe there is no noticeable change and that is ok too. Any reaction is acceptable because whether you are cognizant or not, you are helping your stress response when making the adjustment to deep, steady inhalation and exhalation.

Also remember to be gentle with yourself if you feel now is not the time for you to make a big change in your life. There is so much uncertainty now. But please remember to breathe.

Dr. Lisa Cowley, a holistic chiropractor and nutritional counselor of 25 years, along with her husband, Victor Westgate, a high school educator of 34 years, are authors of Pack Lightly: Making Sense of the Second Half of Your Life. You can learn more at:


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