Taking 5

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Mindful breathing practices are de rigeur at present – for good reason! Do you remember learning about the autonomic nervous system in high school science class? Your memory may need a bit of a nudge –  allow me a re-visit.

Very simply:

  • When your exhale is longer that your inhale, the vagus nerve (that runs from the neck down through the diaphragm) sends a signal to your brain to turn UP your parasympathetic nervous system and turn DOWN your sympathetic nervous system
  • Both comprise the greater autonomic nervous system
  • The parasympathetics control ‘rest and digest’ – a period where your heart rate and blood pressure drop, digestive enzymes are released, saliva is increased, and the body enters a state of calm and healing, balancing and maintaining body systems
  • The sympathetics command the ‘fight or flight’ response – the way in which the body reacts to stress or danger, wherein your heart rate increases, muscles contract, saliva levels decease, and digestive functions become limited

We are all under some level of chronic stress these days – meaning, we spend far too much time in a sympathetic state. By learning to activate your parasympathetics, you can reduce the stress on your heart, digestive system, and immune system. Oxygenating the blood causes the brain to release endorphins – these chemicals help elicit calm, reduce pain, and bring on mental clarity. Stopping to deep breathe a few times a day will not only make you a happier person, it will help you avoid many of the diseases and conditions associated with chronic stress and adrenal fatigue.

And – icing on the proverbial cake – you bring yourself into NOW. You become present and aware of yourself and your surroundings.

A winning, grounding formula!

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I practice mindful breathing every day – I ‘take 5’ early every morning while savouring my soothing, hot elixir. Taking 5 for me is sitting quietly, feet firmly planted on the floor, and taking 5 cyclical breaths: INHALE through nostrils on count of 4 – HOLD for count of 4 – EXHALE through mouth for count of 8. This practice is called the 4-7-8. I also do a couple of cycles just before each meal, to bring get into ‘rest and digest’ mode – what a tremendous help with my digestion! (That and mindful chewing – I tend to scarf down my food. I’m a work in progress on this matter.)

Finally, I practice 4-7-8 when I get into bed at night. This is a must for me, being a recovering insomniac. I lie on my back, hands on belly, and away I go. My heart rate slows and I feel a soothing cloak of relaxation envelope me. To be honest, I exhale for as long as I can (often close to 20 seconds…this takes LOTS of practice…years for me…). I try to get as much of the stale dregs of air out of the bottom of my lungs as possible.

Oh. And a gentle misting of this lavender-heavy mix of essential oils spray across my pillow and face definitely helps the cause!

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Take 5 and breathe – mindfully, deeply.

 

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