There is this one thing that people say when you are in a great amount of stress. They look at you and say “Hey! Just breathe, just breathe!!!”
People give this wonderful advice, “just breathe.” There might be great value in that. Sometimes it can be helpful. Yet often you can feel a lot of frustration bouncing back at you (or them!). Sometimes this advice brings out feelings of incompetence for the one receiving it, such as “Am I stupid? Why can’t I even breathe properly now!”
‘Just breathe’ is not necessarily a helpful phrase for someone who is stressed.
The issue with generalisations
When following a recognized prescribed method – the one that states “if you just breathe you will get through it” – you might find out that it actually brings you more pain, because you are breathing in a specific stressed pattern. Deciding to just change the way you breathe in order to change what you feel might also become repressive. It becomes a feeling that you are trying to manipulate, rather than a feeling to experience and go through – a potentially problematic approach.
Changing the way of breathing
‘Breathe through it’ might be a more helpful way of framing it. But what exactly does it mean to breathe ‘through things’? Could it be that it means to change the way you are breathing? Every emotion has a specific breathing pattern, so if you change the way you are breathing to long deep breaths, then could it be that you are also changing your emotion? That is a big possibility. That is partly why we are instructed to take long deep breaths in a yoga class.
Observing the way you are breathing
Another way of working with breath through difficult or intense emotions is offered in Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation. In this case, we wouldn’t necessarily change the way we are breathing. Rather, we would become aware of the way we are breathing. We could raise our awareness by observing the breath: is it a short inhalation?… or a forceful exhalation?… is there a pause after the inhalation?.. and a different pause after the exhalation?… which pause is longer? This way, we learn to dettach ourselves from the breathing as it is and we raise our awareness. By raising our awareness, the breathing will eventually calm down without forcing anything.
Those are two possibilities of how breathing would be able to help in times of hardship. One is in the laboratory conditions of a yoga class, where the teacher asks you to get into a “stressful” position, like upside down and tells you ‘now breathe’. That is an example of practicing breathing under stressful conditions. The other is to observe your breathing without changing it, while accepting without judgement what is happening to you.
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