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How We've Used Breathing Techniques

We thought it might be helpful for us share some personal stories about specific ways we’ve used breathing exercises to deal with a variety of challenging situations.


          One of the most powerful things breathing does for me is to help me work through pain. When I have a headache, sometimes I’ll pop an aspirin, but often I find that long, slow breathing, along with muscle relaxation and “remembering to breathe” (by which I mean calmly, mindfully “being with” the pain without trying to fight it), is enough to deal with the headache.  It also works well for when I’ve had a backache or other kinds of pain. And even when I choose to take an aspirin, I find that breathing and settling into the core makes it much more effective.

          After I’ve been driving for long periods and start to feel drowsy, doing some “fast belly breathing” really helps to wake me up.

          I’ve played and performed music for many years. I can’t tell you how helpful it’s been to remember to check my breathing to make sure I’m not holding my breath or tensing my abdomen as I’m playing. It takes less than a second and it really diminishes my tension and anxiety level.  It’s also worked well for me in other situations where I’ve had performance anxiety, like job interviews and school exams.

          Whether it’s first getting to sleep or getting back to sleep when I wake up in the middle of the night, slow, mindful breathing (sometimes also breath counting) is something I regularly rely on for a good night’s sleep.

          During the middle of a work day – especially in the mid-afternoon when I find it most challenging to keep my mind focused on work – I really enjoy standing up for a couple of minutes to do some breathing exercises combined with different kinds of slow movement.

          I guess one of the things I’ve found most amazing about breathing exercises over the years is that the same exercise can do so many different things, depending on my intention. For example, I’ve found that slow mindful breathing can be relaxing or energizing, depending on what I’m using it for.


          A few years back, I woke up in the middle of the night with a sudden, excruciating cramp in my calf.  It lasted for what felt like endless minutes, getting more and more intense. Flexing my foot wasn’t helping.  I was starting to panic and then my thigh muscle started cramping up too.  Finally they let up, but only for the calf to start cramping all over again.
         It was such a painful and frightening experience that I was reluctant to go to sleep the next night.  And when I did fall asleep, it happened again, but this time I immediately started to take some deep breaths and I started talking to the muscle, coaxing it to relax.  That allowed me to respond to the cramp calmly instead of with fear.

         What I found interesting was that once I let go of the fear and the emotional tension, the cramp was no longer painful.  I was very aware that the muscle in my calf was contracting powerfully, but it no longer hurt.   

         The cramps kept coming for the next few days, but they never hurt again.  (Then I decided to increase my magnesium intake and after that, they stopped coming.)

         Since that time, I occasionally wake up with a cramp, but it’s not a big deal – I just breathe and relax, and it quickly eases up.

           One Sunday I got a throbbing pain in my tooth that got worse over time. It turned out to be an infected root canal – and if you’ve ever had one, you know we’re talking about some serious pain.  None of the pain killers I tried helped at all, and my dentist wasn’t available until the next day.  So I sat down, put my feet up, and started slow deep breathing, focusing on the flow of my breath. As long as I stayed relaxed and kept breathing slowly and deeply, I was able to breathe my way through the pain until morning when it was time to see the dentist.

          I had always had a huge fear of any kind of public speaking.  Then, about 20 years ago, I had a job that required me to give talks and lead workshops for groups of people on a fairly regular basis.  The minutes before the talk or workshop would be the worst – I’d get extremely anxious – so I’d start watching my breath, slowing it down, and doing some ocean breathing to calm myself down.  Then once I started talking and connecting to the group, I was fine.

          The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning, after splashing some cold water on my face, is meditate.  But when I wake up groggy, it's really hard to get focused, and I tend to drift back to sleep.  So I started doing 4 rounds of 64 fast belly breaths before meditating.  I’ve found that it wakes me up and makes my mind more alert.