How I Tried Using My Breath To Fight Stress
By Nicole Charky
All my life, people have described me as this: bouncy and full of energetic chaos. In other words, I’m not exactly always zen, or paying attention to my breath. Around age 10, I had a very informative doctor’s office moment that I’ll never forget.
The doctor told me to breathe in. When I did, he made a big gasp sound.
“You’re not breathing right,” he said immediately.
My kid reaction: huh? I obviously survived my first decade of life, so I had no clue what he was saying. He explained, with my mom sitting in awe in the corner of the doctor’s office, that I sucked my stomach in when I inhaled, instead of expanding my stomach to gather air. I was an opposite breather.
The doctor told me that I had to fix my breathing. Apparently there was a method most humans on the planet knew how to use — except me — so it was crucial I learned to follow this. So every night, and every day, for the next several months and years, I had to practice proper breathing. I would lay down on my back in bed, head on my pillow, and count my breaths and note how my stomach expanded while I lay on my back, and how it contracted every time I let the breath flow out of my mouth. When I would mess up and fall into my old habits, I would automatically tell myself to cut it out and adjust. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with my breathing. Something — to this day — I have to consciously work on.
Going Steady With My Breath
When I became a teenager, I learned meditation and breathing techniques, and it totally changed my life. It started at my Catholic, all-girls high school. At first, the nuns would ask us to close our eyes — to sit back in our chairs and be completely still. That was very uncomfortable for me. I hated sitting still. I still do. But then I started learning to focus on my breath as they instructed us to and pictured the air flowing in my nose and out of my mouth.
I learned that to center yourself, and really battle stress, you actually only need two things: yourself and your breath. There’s this brilliant feeling of escape you get when you enter a meditative state and simply allow yourself to breathe. Using breath in a mediation practice isn’t necessarily something you have to go and learn or study on a mountain top in India (although that sounds really amazing, and you should totally go if you’re thinking about it). Breathing, and access to meditation, is actually inside of you already. You just have to tap into it. This is something Bob Roth, from the David Lynch Foundation, describes in reflections upon transcendental meditation in his book “Strength in Stillness.”
People who use breathing and meditation often describe how it gives them strength from within during moments when they might not feel like they have any power. How does it start? It starts with breathing.
What Exactly Is Breathwork?
Breathwork can be fancy. I can be trendy. You most likely need a yoga mat. You can get a teacher to show you how to properly breathe and do specific breathwork patterns. But really, the art of breathwork (as New-Agey as this sounds) is learning different breathing rhythms.
Breathwork is really old. So old it dates back to the ancient Hindu practice of yogic breathing called pranayama. In Sanskrit, this means “breath control.” Modern breathwork developed the mid-1960s, with a New Yorker named Leonard Orr, who brought seekers to practice breathwork in bathtubs with snorkels, to simulate womb memories. That’s known as Rebirthing-Breathwork. There are several other forms, including Integrative Breathwork, Shamanic, Radiance, Transformational, Zen Yoga Breathwork, and others.
I could go into detail about each, or I can give you a real explanation of how I make this work for me, which is what I’ll do next.
Here’s The Working-Girl Version of Breathwork (And What It Looks Like For A Busy Person)
There are so many ways you can use your breath to manage your stress. It’s up to you how to get started, but really, it starts the simple way. Just breathe. Wherever you are, wherever you’re standing or sitting, put your phone down or computer away and start it now.
To make this more approachable, and less freaky for you to try solo at home, I’m going to give you a little window into my breathing world. I tried this for a week, wrote about it, and I hope this will help you feel inspired to try it out yourself.
It’s the weekend. I’m sitting at a coffee shop and attempting to write this document of my breathing. I don’t feel reborn — yet — but I’m waiting. I have better breath-consciousness than before I started this exercise. In the afternoon, before the sun sets, I take a walk on the beach and practice my breaths with each step in the sand. It’s not exactly picturesque, though. There’s wind and sand everywhere and it’s very cold. I’m trying to avoid the seagulls, and I can see them pooping in the sky and on the sand. I’m trying not to get hit. But I’m breathing and my feet are in the sand so I feel good about that. I feel like I’m connected to my breath, and with each step, I’m getting a little closer to letting go of the things that bother me: like my writing deadlines, all the work deadlines, my bills, my family, my friends, the shitty date I’m about to put myself through in a few hours, and all the issues ever introduced to me in dating. Then it hits me. I’m doing this for myself and no one else. This is MY time. So it’s time to let go of those thoughts and get back to doing something for me. That’s my big takeaway: this breathing thing is about me. Not anyone else.
When I walked out of a movie (Black Panther - highly recommend it), I turned on my phone and saw that I had some timely, work-related emails. I went into a small panic. My father was with me and we were about to get lunch together and chat. I realized I had a choice: I could either freak out, or I could breathe, eat something, gather my thoughts, and take care of my work after lunch.
I wake up early and drive to the gym. Motivating myself to go to the gym isn’t always easy, and sometimes the drive can be a real morale and mood-killer. On the way there, I notice that several drivers were simply really crappy drivers. Like swerving, hitting brakes for no reason, clogging up the street, and causing a backup in traffic —the kind of shit you don’t want to deal with when you’re already going to do shit you don’t want to do.
I stop my spiraling brain, take a moment to recognize that my skin is heating up and that I’m entering a possible road rage moment. INSTEAD, I choose to breathe. I focus on my breaths and count to 10. I push my back and butt up against the seat of my car to really dig into my lower abs and breathe. Instead of screaming and honking at the bad drivers (something I normally do and secretly fantasize about), I just take that energy and throw it into my breathing.
I’m back at my office. Every time my phone rings, or I see a text pop up on my phone, I take a conscious breath. I don’t have to go into fire drill or panic mode every time somebody asks me a question. In fact, I’m present and ready for anything now. Yeah, it feels loco. Yeah, it’s a lot to try and remember. But hey, I already feel this is making a big difference in how I approach a situation. I’m more positive to approach it because I’ve given myself the space I need to inhale the way I should before I take on the next task. With each breath, I’m giving myself more space to be, well, myself.
My breathing is great on my way to work. (Look, see how positive I’m getting? And this is just about my breathing!). I listened to music, sang along like a pro. By the end of the day, though, I’m beat. And when I hop back in my car for the evening, I notice I’m back to breathing. It’s my breathing that will most likely get me home, sans road rage incidents.
I’m up early, again. I’m off to pilates, an obsession of mine. My goal is simple: breathe throughout the drive and also when I get to pilates. When I do each exercise, I ask the instructor about breathing and check if my breathing is correct throughout. I’m super aware, almost to the point that I’m getting annoyed with myself, but I’m noticing that I’m getting faster at several of the exercises. I’m also surprised how quickly my session goes by. I felt like I was just happily doing the moves without any interruption. I allow myself to be fully in the moment, and as the moment goes, I’m breathing the entire way. It makes me feel ready for work that day, and ready to handle whatever is thrown my way.
It’s a hard day at work. I have a million deadlines and my boss needs me to stay focused before a big deadline. Each time I feel aggravated or annoyed, I just take a deep, calming breath. I remember how far I’ve come and why it doesn’t really matter if I get all my work done perfectly. What matters is that I’m present, that I’m chill, and that I can breathe my way through anything I need to. When I have those things, then I can be stronger and more reliable. I recognize that the breathing experiment this week will probably continue beyond this. Really, the question is this: Can I handle myself and be true to myself enough to keep using my breath as a tool to cope with stress? I think I can. In fact, I already feel it helping. I feel released.
Nicole Charky is a 30-year-old journalist and producer living and working in Los Angeles. She is a contributor to Do The Good Stuff. She writes, creates and manages video content and social media for author and journalist Maria Shriver. Nicole also produces and directs shows and music videos, including Snapchat’s “Phone Swap” and Grammy award-winning artist Bekon’s “Cold As Ice.” Her work has been featured in Snapchat Discover channel Brother, ATTN:, The Los Angeles Times, AOL and Glamour. Her health quest is new, and she's only getting started.