The Marvels of Breathing

My first exposure to the calming powers of a few deep breaths was prenatal classes in 1976 as I was preparing for the birth of my first child. As it turns out, my son decided to arrive almost two months early and very quickly, so I didn’t have a full appreciation for the secret powers of deep cleansing breaths and slowing my heart rate. But I never forgot the lesson and often joked that I used the childbirth breathing method more for painful dentist appointments and getting my children to calm down when they got hurt than for birthing my 3 children.

In fact, my daughter will tell you that I would dispense this advice often to her throughout her childhood : “Take three deep calming breaths” — for everything from needing stitches, to taking her driver’s exam and surviving a breakup with a boyfriend. She just smiles these days when she sees me kneel down and begin to console my grandchild with the same age-old advice –“let’s take a few deep calm breaths together.

Recently, it dawned on me that I’d had another significant lesson about the marvels of breath control over 25 years ago in Cozumel. Sitting on the bow of a dive boat rocking gently in Caribbean crystal blue waters, a skilled and highly intuitive young divemaster prepared us for a multi-level dive. We’d drop in to about 35 feet of water and explore the sandy ocean floor, swaying seaweed filled with brightly colored tropical fish and breathtaking sculptures of coral reef formations. Then we would proceed to the wall, which starts at about 50 feet and plunges down to over 3,000 feet. We would hang out at about 75-80 feet, exploring the nooks and crevices of the wall for sea creatures. I recall gazing out into the expansive abyss of the ocean and seeing the largest grouper of my life slowly approaching. It was a spell binding and heart racing moment.

Part of the scuba diving gear is a Bouyancy Control Device (BCD) which is a snug vest that connects to the pressurized air tank. With a gentle squeeze of a small hand held pump on this BCD, you can add air to ascend and remove air to descend. Today however, our challenges to navigate tight spaces without harming coral reefs and ocean creatures, would require a more nuanced, skillful way to rise and fall as gently as the sea’s own currents. The lesson that day on the bow of the dive boat was how to use our breath, and not the BCD, to rise and fall as needed. Using our lungs to ascend and descend in tiny increments made us more nimble, conserved the air in our tanks and as it turned out, kept us more relaxed and alert on that most incredible, memorable dive. I think it is the reason that this memory remains so vivid after all this time. I believe I was more present on that dive than any other.

We got to practice using our lungs rather than BCD underwater on the shallow, sandy ocean floor. I was like a little kid as I would breathe in and hover just an inch above that sandy bottom. Then a deep slow inhale and I would rise as gently as a balloon in slow motion. I could hear the distinctively different sounds my own breath made as in inhaled and exhaled in a calm, rhythmic way.

A few days ago, I was doing a new meditation pack on my Headspace app and as I prepared, I closed my eyes and took a deep slow inhale. That Cozumel memory came floating right into my senses – I listened carefully to the sound of my inhale and exhale, I felt my body relax and my heart rate slow, I felt the expansion of breath is my lungs and how that made me feel light. Then the release of breath and the accompanying release of thought and tension — a soothing peace washing over me.

There are a few connections that I have subsequently made after this flashback. The first connection was pretty obvious. Whenever I am faced with something scary or contentious, I find myself just naturally anchoring myself with a big deep calming breath. Five years of meditation has made this an automatic response for me now. It is not just the physical act of taking a deep breath. It is the association that I make with it so naturally now — that taking a deep breath is my anchor to being grounded and calm.

I’ll give a shout out to Dr. Rick Hanson right here for teaching me that it is totally possible to rewire the brain and make these incredible positive associations my new natural response. Steady practice is the key and it is also part of my daily self care regimen.

The second big connection I made is that we do multi-level dives often in our lives. We can be hanging out in the shallow end of life’s pool, just enjoying a good book and a cup of coffee and then suddenly the phone rings and we get news that brings us to our knees. How we respond not only affects us but all of those around us too. On that multi-level dive in Cozumel, it was instilled in us to protect the fragile, innocent and incredibly beautiful undersea world that we were visiting. Reflecting on this has given me a greater awareness of how we should consider this lesson as we go about our lives and interact with others. Taking a deep calming breath is a great place to start.

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