When I learned to rock climb, my legs would inevitably start to shake when I got anywhere more than six feet off the ground. It’s a reflex affectionately named “Elvis legs.”
My friends would shout their encouragement, hoping to ease my struggle. I would try to calm myself down, but I couldn’t help this reaction because I was scared. It wasn’t until I moved from a yoga class to a climbing session that I found breathing exercises worked well on the wall.
When I unlocked the power of breathing exercises to help me find calm and focus, I started using them everywhere. I tried taking long deep breaths on the disc golf course before I sent a disc throttling through the sky. Then I tried it while hitting little jumps on my mountain bike. It worked! Breathing was the key to my nerves and helped me perform better.
Do you ever just need a moment to catch your breath? Does the world move too fast — every now and then, do you just need to take a beat and circle back around? Does commuting in traffic make you huffy and angry? Our responses to these kinds of inconveniences are often a compromise of some sort — we lash out, or we lose track of what’s important, or we just get overwhelmed. We’re left feeling anxious and fatigued.
Intentional breathing exercises can turn your day around, and it only takes a few breaths — something we already do all day without even thinking about it. Let’s bring intention into our day and try some transformational breathing exercises.
Begin where you are
When the weight of it all gets too heavy, begin where you are. Take stock of how you are currently breathing. Are your breaths short and stilted? Are you sighing like there is no tomorrow? Is your breath quivering with anxiety?
Note how you are feeling and behaving, without judgement. Know that nothing can change the dignity that is yours just by virtue of being made by a loving Creator. You are loved beyond your ability to understand that love.
Let your breath be a marker for your starting point. There’s nothing to do but observe your breath and feel your chest rising and falling. Begin where you are and plant your feet firmly in the ground you stand on.
Once you are aware of your own breathing, let’s try to deepen this moment with stillness. Close your eyes and listen to your breath. Are you breathing out of your nose or your mouth? Start inhaling through your nose. Air entering through your nose is filtered by structures in your nasal cavity. It warms as it enters and travels through your body to your lungs. Indulge the feeling of the warm air opening and expanding your lungs.
Exhale through your mouth — really let it all out. At first you may force it out quickly, but try to lengthen your exhale. Aim for pursed lips as if drinking from a straw. Intentionally move the air from deep within your chest, through your throat, up to your mouth — then revel in the light breeze passing your lips. Enjoy the whole act of breathing. Be present to yourself, where you are here and now. Inhale, exhale, repeat.
Find your focus
Totally immersed in your breath, let’s focus on the present. Remember: you are recollected; you are here now; you are greater than the sum of your parts. Bring your hands to rest on your body or against each other at your heart. You are complete and whole.
Measure your breath into six seconds of inhale, eight seconds of exhale. Thoughts may pass through your mind; observe them with distance, as you would clouds. Label them as “thinking” and return to your inhaling and exhaling.
Is it hard to continue to focus? That’s okay — it takes practice. Be nice to yourself! You’re new here. Using a phrase with each inhale and exhale can anchor your attention and keep you present:
I inhale love, I exhale compassion.
I inhale stillness, I exhale presence.
In comes spirit, out goes self-gift.
Try to breathe for as little as two minutes or as long as 10 minutes. As you conclude, use the presence-of-mind you’ve cultivated to explore your authentic feelings, needs, and prayers:
I wish loving kindness and goodness to all people and creatures.
I offer my light and joy to all those struggling today.
I am peaceful and will promote peace.
Discover what matters to you right here and right now — then name it and carry it in your heart.
Do you feel present? When we bring our whole body into self-awareness, we may begin to feel a Presence greater than ourselves. We are an important and small part of this beautiful world — remember that our Creator is closer to each of us than we are to ourselves.
This awareness can strengthen us and lift us up. Challenge yourself to acknowledge this widening scope, this expanding horizon within yourself. You have everything you need here and now to be fully present to the Love that created and sustains you.
Make a habit of turning to your breathing with intentionality. Whether you have Elvis legs, an hour-long traffic jam, or a little less energy to cope today, center yourself with breathing. This exercise can transform your outlook and give you what you need to not just survive the moment, but step toward the person you were created to be.