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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

Just Breathe

An except from Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times by Greg Graber

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”- Thich Nhat Hanh

Last spring I had a bit of a health scare. While fortunately it turned out to be nothing serious, my physician referred me to a neurologist to get an MRI. I have heard the term MRI. before, but I never really gave much thought to it.

It was a terrible experience.

As I laid on the table, face up, the nurse instructed me to keep my arms down on my sides. She gave me a red rubber ball, a panic button of sorts, to squeeze in case I got claustrophobic. Before moving the huge tube over half of my body, she asked me what type of music I wanted to hear on the headphones she strapped to my head.

“I guess ’80s music,” I replied.

“Here we go,” the nurse cheerfully said, as the contraption started moving over my head. “We are just going to take a few pictures of your brain for about 30 minutes. Enjoy the ride.”

I’m not sure why they bothered playing music for me, because it was so loud, I could not hear it at all. The MRI machine rattled, hissed, and coughed like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

Not only did it make a lot of noise, but it also slowly kept inching down in front of me, until it stopped about an inch from my nose. I’m not one to be claustrophobic, but the combination of the noise and the confined space made me panic.

My palms were sweating. My heart was racing, feeling like it was going to beat out of my chest! I was starting to freak out. The thought of having to endure the noise, the shaking, and the feeling of confined helplessness for a half-hour was sending my mind into full blown panic mode.

I had to stop it, so I hit the panic button. The machine stopped suddenly, coming to a grinding halt. “Are you ok?” the nurse asked. “I can’t do this,” I replied.

“Honey, we have to get this done. Just relax. I’m going to start it back up in a minute.” I laid there on my back, staring at the ceiling, trying to regain my composure. Then I remembered some advice that I often tell individuals I often work with: Just Breathe.

As I waited for the machine to start back up, I drew in breaths from my nose. I held the breaths in for a second and then slowly released them back out of my nose. I did this over and over.

Suddenly, my heart rate went down. My blood pressure dropped. I felt more relaxed. As the machine started back up again, I knew I was going to be okay.

I continued breathing in, holding it, then breathing out. Over and over. I did this for the entire 30 minutes. It got me through the MRI experience, just as it has helped many individuals I have worked with in the past deal with stressful situations.

It is amazing something as easy as just breathing can take us from a state of panic and stress to a state calm, centered focus. Throughout this book, in subsequent chapters, you will notice that on numerous occasions I will give instructions for different types of breathing techniques for various situations. I do this because in many ways a mindfulness/meditation practice is anchored around our breath.

Our breath is essential to our lives. Breathing is one of the first things we do when we are born, and it is one of the very last things we do before we die. It could be said that our lives could be measured by everything that we experience between the first and last breaths we take. Breath is our constant companion. We can benefit immensely by learning how to use our breath for what it is meant to be: a powerful life force.

Our breath is a barometer to our internal states of mind and emotion. When our breathing is tight and constricted, it means that we are stressed or uptight mentally. When our breath is easy and free-flowing, it most likely means that we are in a good, relaxed state. We take about 22,000 breaths during a 24-hour period. Sadly, most of us put very little thought into this.

Each of these 22,000 breaths is an opportunity to get focused and centered. It’s also a chance to de-stress ourselves a bit.

Start getting into the habit of noticing your breathing throughout the course of the day. When you are stressed and your breathing is tight, simply inhale through your nose and then exhale (slower than the inhale) a half-dozen times. It will put you in a better frame of mind mentally by putting some oxygen into your brain.

There are numerous benefits to this type of conscious breathing. When we breathe deeply, slowly, and fully, our bodies relax. When we relax, we allow space for greater absorption of oxygen into our body’s cells. More oxygen into our bodies means we have greater energy. In addition this helps to activate our parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which calms us down, as opposed to the “Fight or Flight” branch which “speeds up” our minds and physical sensations. As a result, our stress hormones and our heart rates are lowered and we can function more rationally.

One of the key reasons that conscious breathing can help us regulate ourselves better is the role of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the main emotional highways of our bodies. It plays a critical part in signaling your brain and heart in regulating the fight or flight system. Conscious breathing can hijack the way the vagus nerve works.

Breathing slowly and steadily out of our noses (with a longer exhale) does the trick, because this slow type of breathing activates the vagus. Eventually, the vagus activates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (the good one!). Once this is activated, calmness ensues.

I have seen the benefits of using the art of breathing in just about every domain: from my episode in the MRI machine, to sports, business, the arts, and beyond....

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