A college professor once told me that I was breathing wrong. I thought that was a weird thing to say to someone, because breathing is breathing. In and out. She must have seen my confusion because she told me to put my hands on my stomach. On the inhale, the stomach should pop out, and on the exhale return to resting. I was breathing with my shoulders first, she said. You’re only filling the top portion of your lungs, and therefore not providing your body with the full health benefits of oxygen. She was right, and I’ve been using her technique ever since.
Learning to breathe correctly was my gateway to mindfulness. It helps me calm down when stressed, understand myself on a deeper level, and gain a different perspective on things that bother me. Breathing is one of many paths to a mindful life.
What is mindfulness?
There are several different aspects of mindfulness—mindful breathing, thinking, moving, eating, sensing, etc. And there are many definitions of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes “mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Goldie Hawn says “mindful awareness is simply paying attention to what is happening now.” According to Thich Nhat Hanh, during mindful moments, “I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions.” Simply stated, mindfulness is a method that allows you to act with your total and unique presence to whatever is directly in front of you.
Science behind mindfulness
A daily mindfulness practice can change your brain! How? Different parts of the brain perform different functions.
The reptilian brain takes care of things outside our awareness—beating hearts, breathing lungs, etc. The limbic or emotional brain is responsible for how we feel. This part of the brain houses the amygdala, which responds to fear, and directs our flight, fight, or freeze response. The problem is that sometimes the amygdala makes us feel like we’re in danger when we’re really not. The biggest part of the brain is the cortical brain that is responsible for remembering, thinking, talking, and paying attention. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of thinking, planning, reasoning, solving problems, making good choices, and not allowing your emotions to take over.
Through mindfulness, research has shown we can lower the response of the amygdala (also called a brain hijack) and increase the response of the prefrontal cortex. Understanding the brain helps us acknowledge that sometimes our brains are not functioning in ways that are helpful to us, and we can change the way our brains function!
Cut to the chase—how can mindfulness help me?
Mindfulness has many benefits:
· Response flexibility—separating a stimulus and a response—we choose how we act!
· Increase well-being
· Increase self-awareness
· Emotional regulation—neither stagnated nor overwhelmed by emotions
· Modulate fears
· Focus attention
· Increase ability to relax
Lower blood pressure
· Reduce unpleasantness of pain
· Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
· Improve sleep
· Improve memory
· Improve intuition
· Label our emotional states
· Cope more effectively with stress
· Understand the causes of our stress
Daily habits show up as patterns in our brains. Why not create a healthy habit of mindfulness that can lead to greater vitality, strength, and inner calm?
Next week—practices and tips!
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Beacon Press, Boston, 1987.
Goldie Hawn, 10 Mindful Minutes, Penguin, New York, 2011.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners, Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado, 2012.