To breathe is to live. Without breath, life ceases. This vital, life force energy is the animating force of all creation. It is present in ALL living things. In Sanskrit it’s prana. For ancient Hebrews it’s ruachand for the Greeks pneuma. These all translate to breath, wind, spirit.
I was fortunate to participate in a BLM protest in City Heights back in June. This socially distanced, masked gathering of children & families was a powerful experience. Surrounded by people of color, we chanted, “Say their names. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd,” as we marched from Rosa Parks Elementary School to the Mid City Police Station and back. I was silenced as the chants turned to, “I can’t breathe.” It was the first time I considered the severity of that statement. To breathe is to live. Without breath, life ceases. And our BIPOC sisters and brothers are not only living in fear of that breath being taken from them they are experiencing it at alarming rates at the hands of people we expect to protect and serve all of us.
Most of the time we don’t even notice we are breathing, it’s controlled by our body’s autonomic nervous system. This nervous system is made up of 2 parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which stimulates our fight or flight response and directly correlates with our inhalation and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which stimulates our rest and digest system, relaxing the body after stimulation and directly correlates with our exhalation.
I’m sure you’ve heard at some point in life to, “Stop and take a deep breath.” While the intention is good, our breath can help to calm us, taking a deep breath (think inhalation) actually causes our diaphragm to move down and the volume in our thoracic cavity increases as our lungs fill with air. As they fill, they also begin to compress the walls of the heart, which in turn restricts blood flow going into and out of the heart. To compensate for this restriction, our heart rate increases, stimulating our fight-or-flight response. When we exhale, our diaphragm moves up and the volume in our thoracic cavity decreases as our lungs empty the air inside them, which relaxes our bodies. In short, it is actually our exhale, not our inhale, which helps our body relax.
The good news is that we have the ability to affect our breathing rate. We can change our breathing. This means we can train ourselves to respond to over-breathing with an intentional breathing pattern designed to promote relaxation.
Some researchers recommend a specific ratio of inhalation to exhalation that can be practiced in the moment when wanting to achieve a more relaxed breathing state. For example, Inna Kahzan, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, recommends a 4:6 ratio — 40% of the breath cycle spent on inhalation and 60% of the breath cycle spent on exhalation.
Though the exact breath count that is most helpful for you may vary based on your natural breathing rate (some people tend to breath at a higher/lower rate than others), a rough estimate of what this ratio would look like is to inhale for a count of 1…2…3…4 and then exhale for a count of 1…2…3…4…5…6, where each count lasts one second.
Take a minute to guide yourself, “Breath in — 1…2…3…4, and breathe out — 1…2…3…4…5…6.”
Focus on normal inhalations, neither too short nor too long, and then extend the exhalation. You will begin to notice yourself calming down, which in turn will better enable you to focus on your upcoming challenges. Yet like most things, using breathing to regulate your nervous system takes practice, so it’s important to make extended exhalations a part of your regular routine.
But stop and imagine for a moment the sensation of not being able to breathe, not being able to take an inhalation, grasping desperately for that necessary oxygen for your body, your life to continue. And now imagine moving through the world, with the thought in the back of your mind that your breath may be taken from you at any moment for any reason. This stress and trauma being thrust upon our BIPOC sisters and brothers is reprehensible. The next time you pause to take that deep breath, call to mind all those chanting in the streets and those whose last utterances were, “I can’t breathe.”