Sometimes the answers are really hard and take a lot of thinking or work or searching. And sometimes the answers are really easy: as easy as breathing, in fact.
That’s what I found out this month when I practiced deep breathing intentionally every day for a month. So many cool things happened.
I Mean, I Breathe, but…
I have always had a complicated relationship with breathing. I mean, I breathe of course, obviously. But for my entire life, my breathing patterns have been a little wacky.
I took piano lessons when I was younger, and I remember holding my breath a lot while I was playing—I think because I was afraid of making a mistake, and somehow, in my confused magical youthful thinking, I thought that if held my breath, perhaps I could avoid making a mistake.
Little Me, playing piano.
It didn’t help, in case you were wondering. I just remember playing faster and faster, probably because I needed to get to the end of the song to breathe. Inevitably, my fingers couldn’t keep up, and I would have to stop to catch my breath. (It turns out that a lot of people hold their breath when they are stressed out or concentrating. You can read more about this here.)
And it wasn’t just piano playing that disrupted my breathing. I think I held my breath a lot in other areas of my life or practiced staggered breathing without realizing it. It has to do with my personality.
There is one part of me that is really calm and peaceful and balanced. Then there is the other side of me that is a bit of a perfectionist, a workaholic, a controller, etc. etc. When I slip into this side, I start holding my breath a lot. Or I breathe shallowly. When I get into this mode, I make myself really anxious. This messes up my breathing even more, which makes me more anxious.
This is a problem a lot of people have.
My breathing has been disrupted by other things in the past, too. For example, getting really excited and overstimulated can mess up my breathing patterns, too.
This happened when I got my first teaching job right out of college, and I was so excited I could barely stand it. My excitement made it really hard for me to catch my breath, and I remember gasping for breath several times in the months before I started teaching. I couldn’t seem to breathe deeply with any regularity.
This has happened several other times in my life right before big, exciting changes like moving to a new state or getting married. (It turns out that breathing disruption during periods of excitement is pretty normal. You can read about this here.)
It is tempting to dismiss erratic breathing experiences like I have had as no big deal. After all, I could still breath during these times. I didn’t have to go to the hospital. I do not have any kind of medically diagnosed breathing problem like asthma. I have never had to be on any kind of medication for breathing problems.
But staggered, erratic, or shallow breathing can affect us negatively in many different ways. One of the primary ways it does this is by exacerbating stress. Dr. Alan Fogel, clinical psychologist, writes, “Chronic breath holding and effortful breathing are not healthy because the muscular effort, coupled with the effects of stress on the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems, can impair both physical and psychological function.”
Dr. Richard Brown, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who studies the affects of deep breathing on the nervous system notes that when we breathe shallowly, we can create tension and crisis in our bodies, which exacerbates stress and painful mental states such as anxiety or depression.
When we breathe deeply, we send messages to our brain and body that everything is good and that it is okay to calm down. Because of this, Leslie Alderman writes,
Controlled breathing…has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Buddha advocated breath-meditation as a way to reach enlightenment. Science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found, for example, that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.
Deep breathing often brings me the kind of peace I feel when spending time in nature.
Had I read information like this a few years ago, I would not have thought a lot about it. Despite all of the weird breathing problems I have had in the past, I didn’t really think that there was anything wrong with my breathing.
That changed when I started taking a moment of silence with my students before class.
I teach philosophy at a local college, and in recent years, I have become interested in something called contemplative pedagogy. Contemplative pedagogy is a classroom practice that teachers can use to cultivate compassion, empathy, peace, calmness, attention, and deeper levels of learning in the classroom. (You can read more about contemplative pedagogy here.)
As a part of my contemplative practice in the classroom, I usually start all of my classes with a moment of silence in which I invite students (and myself) to unplug from noise and social media, to sit in silence (with eyes closed or open, as students desire). I tell my students that they are welcome to use that time to pray if they come from a religious tradition, or they can just sit in silence and take a moment to be peaceful.
Given how rushed and frantic and “plugged-in” my students are constantly, I was certain that the moment of silence would be a beneficial thing for them. What I didn’t expect is how beneficial it would be for me.
Several months into the practice, I began noticing how much my breathing slowed and deepened during the moment of silence. I also noticed how much this calmed me down and made me feel peaceful and grounded.
The moment of silence suddenly made me aware of how erratic and shallow my breathing was outside of class and, really, for most of my waking moments. I became especially aware of moments when my breathing seemed disordered or “off” somehow.
For example, I suddenly realized that instead of breathing through my nose calmly, like I did in the moment of silence, I often breathed through my mouth in short, rapid breaths. (This article discusses the benefits of nose breathing, as opposed to mouth breathing.)
I realized that recently, even small exertions seemed to make me get out of breath. This is not normal for me.
I noticed that my nervous system often felt revved up and on high alert, the exact opposite of how I felt when I was breathing deeply and intentionally during the moment of silence.
I noticed that I was feeling extreme anxiety more frequently, and this seemed related to my breathing patterns.
I noticed getting abnormally winded while walking up a flight of stairs.
I noticed that I was waking myself up at night by snoring. Snoring can be caused by a lot of things, but one of the things is disordered breathing patterns.
As I began to notice all of these issues in my daily life, I realized that they were fairly recent developments, and I concluded that my breathing had gotten really erratic and disordered and that I need to work on it.
That my breathing had become erratic is not too surprising because two years ago, I finished my PhD program, and I also changed jobs. Developing erratic breathing is pretty consistent with the historical pattern of my breathing becoming disordered during times of stress or excitement.
So I decided April 1, 2018 that for one month, I would practice taking ten deep breaths through my nose, three times a day. I thought this would help re-calibrate my breathing.
I made brief journal notes through the month of the changes I noticed during this experiment, and I was surprised at how tremendously this simple practice has helped me.
April 1—I need to work on breathing. I am having a lot of problems feelings out of breath, and it seems like my breathing problems are causing other problems like snoring. Something is just off for me. I seem to be having more anxiety lately.
April 2—I am going to do at least 10 deep breaths three times a day for a whole month. I am excited. I have been doing breathing during contemplative moments with my students, and I feel really relaxed whenever I do this.
Me excited about my breathing experiment.
April 3—I practiced breathing when I got up. I worked on deep diaphragm breaths. Already, I can go up stairs breathing more easily, and I can tell that my breathing capacity is already stronger. Also, today I was feeling sad, and I practiced deep breathing for a while. I felt a lot better.
April 4—I really noticed a difference today climbing the stairs. I was breathing hard at the top of the stairs, but my breathing recovered more quickly. I was able to breathe through my nose more and not my mouth. I am also snoring less. I feel like my lungs are stronger
April 5—I am feeling a lot stronger. I climbed the stairs breathing entirely through my nose. I also went on a mile walk at the arboretum, and I breathed entirely through my nose.
April 6, 7, 8—I feel stronger and calmer, and my breathing is more powerful. I breathe almost completely through my nose, and before I had to breathe through my mouth a lot. I started having an anxiety attack yesterday. I was able to notice it and calm myself down before it happened through breathing. I think there is a correlation between my anxiety attacks and breathing. My digestion also seems to better, and I somehow feel like my muscles are more toned.
Breathing deeply is a way we enter deeply into our relationship with our body and learn to express love to it.
April 9–I am breathing almost entirely through my nose now, and I feel calmer and more relaxed. I have started doing yoga again, too, and my breathing in yoga is better.
April 10–I am able to go really long periods of time just breathing through my nose—like all tonight. I feel like I am breathing less often and like I get more out of every breath. My digestion is definitely improving. I feel more grounded.
April 11, 12, 13—I can ascend stairs and not breathe hard. I feel like my muscles are stronger. I walk with strength.
April 14, 15, 16–My muscles feel a lot stronger. I feel stronger in general.
April 17 and 18—I have noticed that I have better balance.
April 19 and 20—I practiced exhaling completely and then inhaling eight breaths, holding four breaths, and exhaling four breaths. I am breathing deeply. I feel so much better, and my snoring has stopped completely.
April 21-26–I am still breathing entirely through my nose, and my breathing re-regulates more easily after going up stairs. I have started exercising more, and I actually enjoy breathing while exercising.
April 27-30—My breathing feels like an anchor. I feel calmer, more confident, more solid and unified.
I finished my month of purposeful breathing, and I am really amazed at how beneficial one month of breathing ten breaths intentionally three times a day has helped me.
I am more calm (and this is even during finals week); I feel stronger; I feel more grounded; and I feel more at home and connected with my body and mind. And I can’t be sure this has happened, but my skin looks clearer to me, and my muscles feel more toned. Recently, I have also noticed that I wake up feeling really refreshed.
On my blog, I write about how we can bring more love into our lives in our relationship with ourselves and with other people. My month of purposeful breathing has convinced me that breathing deeply is one of the best gifts of self-love that we can give ourselves.
I decided that I am going to do another month of purposeful breathing, and I want to invite you to join me.
Invitation: Every day for a month, practice sitting or lying down and taking ten breaths through your nose three times a day. Work on breathing deeply from your stomach, rather than breathing shallowly from your chest. You can read more about how to this here.
If you like, report back in a month about the benefits you experienced from this practice. (You can write at the end of this blog post, if you like.) You might consider keeping a journal during your month of purposeful breathing, like I did, to track positive changes you notice.
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I ended up doing my breathing practice for a whole year and blogging about it every month. Here is month two:
 Fogel, Alan. “Waiting to Exhale.” Psychology Today. 27 September 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/body-sense/201009/waiting-exhale
 Alderman, Leslie. “Breathe, Exhale, Repeat.” New York Times. 9 November, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/well/mind/breathe-exhale-repeat-the-benefits-of-controlled-breathing.html