I believe breathing is magical.
Because it’s the only bodily function that can either run on its own, or we can consciously influence it. If we don’t pay attention to the breath when we are anxious, it will often keep us in a place of feeling afraid and overwhelmed.
If we’re thoughtful, and focus on the quality of breath (inhalations and exhalations) that is long, slow and deep, we can help ourselves feel (and be) calmer. Slower. Less frantic.
Although we can’t feel it, slow and deep breathing facilitates the movement of our internal organs. When we breathe deeply, our diaphragm (the muscular partition that separates our hearts and lungs from our stomach and guts) rises and falls. As it rises and falls, it either creates space, or fills space. Since we have organs both above and below this space, those organs move to accommodate the diaphragm’s movement.
If you’ve watched the ocean, you’ll notice that the waves roll in and out at a certain rhythm. This rhythm may alter if there’s been a storm (or a storm is on the way), but the waves always come in and go out again. Every minute, every day, every week, every month. Waves rise and fall, advance and retreat. If we quiet our minds and bring our attention to the water’s pattern, we might find that our breathing gradually synchronizes with the rhythm of the waves.
Here’s more magic: you don’t need to go to the ocean to feel as though you’re on the beach. A breath that first expands your ribcage, and then fills your chest, has the potential to induce the same sense of calm. (Here’s where you’re thinking I might mention those colorful umbrella drinks, aren’t you?) When your internal organs are moving, when your diaphragm is doing it’s job of rising and falling like ocean swells, your body will relax. You will feel less anxious, and your thoughts will slow down.
Let’s try this: put your right hand under your collar bones and your left hand over the bottom left of your ribcage.
Take a breath. Which hand moved? Did your right hand rise and fall and your left hand remain still? If so, the way you are breathing is the way you breathe when you’re close to or in an anxiety / fear state. By extension, this means that when you go out to your horse where fear and/or anxiety may arise, it’s going to feel more intense because your body has been set up for tension by this breathing pattern.
Now move your right hand down so it is opposite your left, bracketing your ribcage. Can you breathe deeply enough to cause both hands to move? This is the type of breathing that sets us up to feel calmer and more relaxed. It’s the way we need to breathe most of the day, because when we get to our horse (where we are going to feel more nervous), we want to give our body a way to turn off the alarm system. Breathing slowly and deeply is key to this.
Another way to think about breathing effectively, is filling your lungs with air the way you would fill a glass with water. When we pour water into the glass, it doesn’t start at the top and hover there. It flows to the bottom of the glass and fills up to the top. So it is with air and our lungs: we are designed so that the air goes to the bottom first (ribcage breaths), and inflates our chest last.
Feeling better in general is great motivation to become more mindful about how you breathe. Another highly motivating reason is that for horses, the holding of their breath signals their body to go into alarm. This is so the other senses (smell, hearing and sight) can all be intensified, to let them know if there is danger or not. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer my horse to feel as though we are walking in a park, not being chased by lions.
What kind of effect must it have on them, when we show up and we aren’t breathing? I have seen countless times that even quiet horses will startle easier and move with tension if the person around or on them isn’t breathing deeply. Conversely, I have also seen how reclaiming our innately nourishing deep breath can also help a horse calm down.
Breathing is free. You can do it anytime, anywhere, and almost no one will notice. There’s nothing to sign up for, no equipment to buy, and it won’t make you more susceptible to spam, internet viruses or phishing scams. The benefits are far reaching, and no matter how many times you forget it to do it, you can always reconnect and breathe more deeply, right now. Your nervous system, and your horse, will thank you.
Below is a link to Donna Farhi’s website and her excellent book on breathing. There are other good books too, if you care to search around.
In the next blog we will chat about movement. When movement is coupled with breathing deeply, it can help you process and release a tremendous amount of fear.
Until then, as an experiment, pick a day. It doesn’t matter which one (though I am a big fan of the day we have staring us in the face), and explore how much breathing you can do.
You might be surprised. Who knows? It might possibly even be magical.