“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the most fascinating physiological processes of the body is our breath. It’s fascinating because breathing is an autonomous system that we also have control of. Meaning that our bodies breathe naturally on their own, but we also have the power to change and control our breath. This is different than our heart beat, for example, because as it is a natural process of the body, it is not something we can actively control.
The quality of our breath is an important part of using breath as a mindfulness practice. Also, our breath is a wonderful indictor of our mood as it changes with our feelings. Noticing our breath can help us notice our feelings and moods and visa-versa. Horses give and receive information though the quality and frequency of breath as well. They understand our emotions through the way we breathe. Often, when we are holding our breath or producing quick, shallow breaths, the horse will pick this up and it can cause them to become stressed or nervous as well.
When working with clients, we encourage them to become aware of their breath and how the horses react to it. Because many people working with large animals like horses become nervous, they often forget to breathe. It is common for us to encourage clients to be aware of their breathing and encourage them not to hold their breath. Here are some quick tips to use anytime and anywhere as a way to bring our awareness into the present moment through our breath:
Breath as an Anchor
Bringing awareness to the quality of our breath as it enters and exits our body is a great place to start. There are many different ways people breathe, many of them are ineffective, and we aren’t even aware that we are breathing ‘ineffectively’. Becoming aware of how we breathe, which is unique to different individuals, is a great step in the direction towards using your breath as a mindfulness tool, and improving our overall physical and mental health.
It is common for people to mouth breathe (I am guilty of this), over breathe (which can lead to over-eating), breathing through your chest vs. your belly, reverse breathing (diaphragm rises instead of falls during inhale), holding your breath, and having a stronger inhale than exhale. Focusing your awareness on your breath is a great mindfulness tool as it brings your awareness within yourself and takes you into the present moment.
Life is an emotional rollercoaster. C’mon we know it’s true, no matter how little you want to admit it. Having a tool that is on us at all times and easily under our control, can be very helpful in many situations we find ourselves in. Instead of waiting for the right moment to bring our breathing tool out, it may be more beneficial to practice our breath every day. Take one minute to notice your breath, maybe when you first wake up and before you go to bed, or before each meal of the day.
The benefits of practicing awareness of your breath will go a long way the next time you desperately need to whip out this tool due to stress, or uncertainty, while at the peak of your rollercoaster ride.
Throughout history connecting with our breath has been a fundamental way to develop stability and calm through meditation. For some, directing our entire awareness to our breath for a full minute is a daunting or elusive task when you’re first starting out. However, don’t fear, many strategies have been developed to assist someone in achieving the benefits of breathing.
An effective method that is very simple is to count your breath. Count “one” as you breathe in and “one” as you breathe out. This brings you more aware of your breath and begins the process of breathing as a mindfulness tool. Connecting with your breath allows you to feel centered and grounded in the present moment and can really help in times you feel overwhelmed or overcome by difficult emotions.
An interesting thing about our breath is that it mirrors how we are feeling. If you are feeling stressed out or tense our breath will reflect that by becoming short, or non-existent altogether. If you are relaxed, then you will take long breaths.
Taking advantage of this reflective relationship between our emotions and our breath allows us to become in tune with the sometimes difficult-to-pinpoint emotions that bounce around our bodies. Next time you feel a little all over the place with your feelings, try noticing your breath and see if you can connect your breath in that moment with what you’re experiencing in your body
This will help you become at ease, no matter what emotion you are feeling. Becoming fully aware of what you’re feeling and simply accepting it, is a very important step in mindfulness practice.
From here you can use your breath as a tool to shift your emotions to become more relaxed by lengthening your breath, even in moments when you’re not feeling particularly relaxed, and see what happens. It is important to not become frustrated during these practices and if you find you are frustrated just stop and become aware of your breath again.
Breathing is pretty neat when you think about it. You don’t need any special conditions to use it as a mindfulness tool. You could be in a classroom, at work, at sports practice, or half way across the world and you will always have this tool available to you. Because of this, our breath is central to all mindfulness practice. The end goal of breathing exercises isn’t necessarily to become relaxed, but instead, it is to become aware and be present in your body.
About the Author: Juliana Newport is a summer intern supporting the experiences and programs offered at The Mane Intent Inc. Along with her love for horses, she has just finished her third year as a Psychology Student at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. With prior insight into how horses yearn to create relationship and provide loving, non-judgmental support for people, Juliana hopes to deepen her knowledge of the connection between horses and greater wellness while working at the farm this summer.