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Improve Your Breathing
To Reduce Stress and Increase Your Performance

By Ingrid Bacci, Ph.D.
Author of "The Art Of Effortless Living"

I learned to improve both my health and my professional performance by making it a priority to breathe in a deep, relaxed manner in all my activities. In this article, we will explore how other people have used breath awareness to transform their lives in positive directions. But first let's remember some basic principles:

Your health, emotional balance, creativity and productivity all depend on your inner state. The more comfortable you are in your own skin, the more healthy, creative, effective and productive you are. Mind-body work teaches you how to be comfortable in your own skin, with the result that you can perform at your peak.

The first rule of thumb for all mind-body work is to practice relaxation in all situations, and the first technique for doing that is breath awareness. Relaxed breathing is synonymous with physical ease, mental focus and emotional calm. Most of us breathe shallowly when under stress, contributing to mental tension, emotional anxiety, irritability and anger, and muscular discomfort. By reversing this pattern, we improve our performance.

A few case histories will give you a sense of how dramatically you can change your life by consciously relaxing into your breathing.

Making business work for you. A corporate consultant who was extremely successful came for sessions with me because she was aware that she continued to be plagued by feelings of anxiety in her work. Janice was a performer. Earning a top salary didn't free her from a subtle need to gain her clients' approval. Despite her earnings, she was emotionally under the thumb of her clients, and worried that with the next job, she'd under perform.

Over a series of months, Janice paid attention to her breathing when she was with clients. She noticed how often she stopped breathing, or tightened up in anxiety. Then she practiced letting go of the anxiety by opening up her breathing. As she did this, she felt more and more comfortable. And as she felt more secure, she started putting up boundaries, boundaries that she should have put up long before.

Janice saw that when her breathing became tight, she was taking on too much work, or backing away from stating her own point of view if that meant disagreeing with her clients. Enlightened about her own behavior, and feeling more confident as a result of her inner work, she decided to change this pattern. The result? Within a year, she had significantly reduced her workload, while increasing her income by a third. Isn't it interesting, how focusing on making relaxation your top priority can generate such productive results!

Eliminating chronic migraines. I had a client named Alice who came to me at the age of 54, and who had been suffering from migraines since the age of 16. In her search to find a cure for her headaches, Alice had seen countless doctors, all to no avail. I showed her how to become more aware of physical tensions in her body, and how to use mind-body techniques to release that tension. One of the main techniques was deep, relaxed breathing.

Four months later, Alice was free of migraines. I myself was astounded at this success, after four decades of pain. Yet changing your breathing pattern changes the way you live in your body, and the effect of this can be dramatic. Through breath awareness, Alice eliminated muscle tensions that had been radiating up into her head and restricting circulation, all of which contributed to the migraines.

Improving your golf. I worked with an amateur golfer named David who was interested in using mind-body techniques to upgrade his game. We paid attention to one thing, and one thing only: the quality of his breathing when he swung a club, picked up a golf ball, walked from the tee to his ball, etc. My assumption was that if David learned to make relaxed breathing his top priority, this would automatically reduce the muscle tension, racing thoughts and anxiety that interfered with his game.

When David and I began working together, he was an enthusiastic but average golfer. A year later, he was invited to play in his club's championship tournament. Equally important, in addition to improving his game, David had learned how to make golf something he deeply enjoyed. Whether or not he shot the perfect score when he played, his goal was always to use breath awareness to feel more effortless. And so long as he kept that goal in mind, his game gradually improved.

Keeping the stress out of your life. The head of a summer camp came to me at one point because daily stresses were contributing to neck problems and bronchial infections. Ellen was fascinated by the idea of using relaxed breathing as a centerpiece of her life. I remember her telling me about going to meet an old friend at an art exhibit. She and her friend reacted quite differently to the exhibit, and they started arguing about it. Then she noticed that the minute she started arguing, her body tightened up.

Ellen focused on using breath awareness to let her body relax, and she decided to let go of an argument if it made her tense. As things turned out, when she did this, she and her friend communicated their differences much better. Ellen was amazed that simply focusing on staying more balanced inside helped her communicate more effectively. She also enjoyed herself more.

What is the bottom line in all these stories? When you use breathing to make your inner state - how you feel inside - more important than what you accomplish - how much you get done, how many people you impress, how many tennis balls you hit, or whatever it might be - you end up performing at a higher level. And - you find much greater pleasure in what you do.

Here are a few tips for learning how to breathe in a deeply relaxed way:

1) Place one hand over your belly, and one over your chest, and notice where you feel the breath. When you breathe in a relaxed way, your chest will stay fairly quiet, while your belly expands. Practice breathing gently into your belly until it becomes a habit.

2) Keep in mind that when your body is fully relaxed, you will breathe between four and six breaths a minute. Notice how many breaths you take. If your norm is between ten and twenty-five breaths a minute, use meditation to gradually slow down and open up your breathing. Chapter 6 of my book, The Art of Effortless Living, describes in detail how to breathe in a relaxed, meditative manner.

3) Begin to incorporate breath awareness into simple activities. When you are showering, preparing breakfast or dinner, cleaning your office or driving your car, notice the quality of your breathing. Is it constricted or shallow? Do you ever stop breathing? See if you can consciously relax into deep, easy breathing in these simple situations. Then graduate into more challenging situations: negotiating with a colleague, meeting a deadline, handling difficult relatives, etc.

Remember that you are always learning, and be patient with yourself. Then enjoy the outcome!

See Also: 

Breathing for Stress Management

Stress Management Infocenter in Holisticonline.com

Pranayama, the yoga science of breathing

Meditation Infocenter in Holisticonline.com

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