I was sitting in my car, minding my own business, when a crazed speed freak flew by on the right. Suddenly veering in front of me into the left lane, he inserted his giant black truck into a practically non-existent space between two cars- a kind of freeway rape. Surprise and anger flooded my unsuspecting body and mind as the whole left lane braked in unison to avoid a pile-up. I began to breathe like a freight train. It didn't help. Instead, the heavy breathing made me even more angry and obsessed with Mr. Freako's stupidity and entitlement.
I was tempted to forget my manners and chase the offender, but neither my rented Econocar nor driving skills were up to the task. Fortunately, I knew a less incendiary way to end the encounter. I did a minute of belly breathing and recovered my sanity, such as it is. Breathing, after all, is the single most important skill for calming body and mind.
You may have noticed that as soon as you start feeling overwhelmed or anxious, your breath gets fast and shallow. You probably hold your breath intermittently as well, so that its flow is ragged and irregular. Busy, stressed breathing accelerates heart rate and signals your body to create anxiety-producing chemicals. This ancient mind/body feedback loop alerts you to danger, tenses your muscles in preparation for the kill or the great escape, and creates narrow focus. Such an automatic overdrive system comes in handy if you're fleeing from a mugger, but it's like stepping on the gas with your foot on the brake when the threat is no more serious than your to-do list. After a while, you burn yourself out.
Breathing is the only autonomic (meaning automatic--like heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature) function over which we also have conscious control. While most people can't lower their heart rate or increase their body temperature at will unless they're trained in biofeedback, martial arts, or yoga, anyone can change their breathing. Breath is the link between body and mind, the royal road to calming down and returning your body to balance. Physiologists call this state homeostasis. All the body's systems are cooperating in perfect harmony.
If you practice martial arts, or the "zen" of sports, you might call this state "being centered." The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to it as "the flow state." It's where we do our best work, play our finest game, and experience creative thoughts and ideas bubbling up from a seemingly inexhaustible well. We are in our best self, and feel a solid connection to the wholeness of life. This is the peaceful center, present inside you at all times. Proper breathing is the simplest way to access it. Since the only time that it's inappropriate to breathe is while you're underwater or caught in a poison gas attack, the practice of centered breathing is always available to you. Since you have to breathe anyway, it doesn't even take any extra time.
When you're in your center, you breathe like a baby. Watch a baby resting on its back, and you can observe that its belly swells like a balloon on the in-breath, and deflates on the out-breath. The rhythm is steady.
Take a moment right now and pay attention to your own breathing. Does your belly swell on the in-breath and relax when you breathe out, or does your chest rise and fall instead? Does your breath flow in a steady rhythm, or is it choppy?
Shifting from stressed chest breathing to relaxed belly breathing is simple. Your body does it naturally every time you sigh or yawn. Give this breath-shifting exercise a try: Recline a little (lying down is even better), and place your hands flat on your belly to help you notice what's happening. Now take in a big breath and let it go with an audible sigh of relief. Breathe out as much air as you can. On the next in-breath, either feel or imagine that your belly is expanding. Feel or imagine it relaxing as you breathe out. Now take ten more belly breaths. If you like, you can count each breath, or even repeat the word relax or centered as you breathe out. Pay attention to the physical sensations that you feel.
Belly breathing isn't brain surgery. Many people have heard of it. The problem is that most of us still don't do it. Make a few Save Your Breath signs on note cards and post them where you will see them. Make it a habit of checking on your breathing often, particularly when you feel rushed or overwhelmed. Let go with a sigh of relief, and then concentrate on five or ten belly breaths. Think of this as feeling the way to your "sane center." Over time, that feeling will become familiar, like home. You will find it easier and easier to experience peace.
For more information go to www.Joan Borysenko.com or pick up a copy of Inner Peace for Busy People, published by Hay House, from which this column was adapted.