Breath is the foundation of life.
It requires no thought to make it happen—it’s autonomic. And as a result, many of us don’t pay much attention to it. Why would we?
As it turns out, our breathing habits have a bigger impact on the quality of our lives than we think. And whether we notice it or not, the ways in which we breathe are heavily influenced by things like our posture, our health, our environment, and even by the people around us.
Modern science continues to prove that the way we breathe is directly linked to our state of mind and emotional well-being. In 2017, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified nerve cells in the brainstem that connect breathing rhythm to states of relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety.
Ancient Indian yogis have been using conscious breathing technology dating back as early as the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300-1900 BCE), and began establishing its first philosophical schools on yogic systems between 200 BCE-500 CE. Although it has taken the West this long to prove the efficacy of conscious breathing practices, such as pranayama, yogis have gone on benefiting from this technology for thousands of years.
If we make the conscious decision to bring awareness back to our breath, we harness the ability to change our overall experience of life. Even science agrees, this idea is more than wishful thinking. And what is equally as astonishing, but isn’t often talked about, is that this simple yet readily available superpower of yours can also be used to influence the emotional well-being of those you love.
How Your Internal State Affects Those You Love
Joe Navarro, a nonverbal behavior expert and former counterintelligence officer for the FBI, describes in his book, What Every Body is Saying, how the limbic (mammalian) brain is the epicenter of unbridled truth when it comes to nonverbal communication. “[This is] because it is the part of the brain that reacts to the world around us reflexively and instantaneously, in real time, and without thought. For that reason, it gives off a true response to information coming in from the environment. (Myers, 1993, 35-39).” This primal technology is hardwired into our bodies, namely for the sake of survival. While this survival function may continue to serve us well today, it also has its ways of working against us.
Here’s an example of how it works:
Imagine a herd of gazelles grazing on an open plain. They are peaceful and easefully moving about. Suddenly, one of the gazelles hears a rustle in a tree line several meters away, turns its head and instantly freezes. Seemingly in the exact same moment, all of the other gazelles freeze as adrenaline floods their nervous systems. The others freeze not because they heard the sound themselves, but solely in response to the one gazelle’s reaction.
This is the limbic system in action. Once triggered, the entire herd becomes frozen as a unit—what one feels, they all feel. Based on any gazelles next reaction dictates the entire herds next move. And all this happens in a matter of seconds.
It’s likely you’ve experienced this sort of thing yourself: like when a glass breaks, a stranger loses their temper, or a parent yells. The environment sends shockwaves deep into the core of your being, altering your internal state as your limbic brain screams, “it’s not safe here!” or “this person is not safe!”
This type of limbic response is easier to spot when the stimulus is overt and jarring, but what about when the stimulus is a bit more subtle?
What we find is that this function of our human experience doesn’t turn itself off. Our nervous systems are constantly picking up on even the most subtle cues from everything and everyone around us—affecting how we think, how we feel and how we decide… whether we are conscious of it or not.
Navarro says, “Because it is uniquely responsible for our survival, the limbic brain does not take breaks. It is always ‘on’.”
If you come home with stress in your body: muscles tight, breath shallow, and your sympathetic nervous system stuck on overdrive, guess what your loved ones will experience in your presence?
If you guessed unease, anxiety or discomfort, you’re right. They will feel it. It doesn’t matter if they’re 18 months old or 18 years old. And rarely is anyone aware that it’s happening. The impact your presence has on others runs far deeper than we realize. And these impressions have lasting effects.
“The limbic brain is like a computer that receives and retains data from the outside world… [For example,] if we run into a ‘class bully’ twenty years later, negative feelings of long ago will percolate to the surface once more, thanks to the limbic brain… Conversely, the limbic system also works efficiently to register and retain a record of positive events and experiences (e.g., satisfaction of basic needs, praise, and enjoyable interpersonal relationship). Thus, a friendly or familiar face will cause an immediate reaction—a sense of pleasure and well-being.”
The question becomes: what impact are you having on those you love?
Using only our breath, we have the ability to transition out of tense, stressed, and anxiety filled states in a matter of moments. With our loved ones in mind, we do this from a place that isn’t just about us anymore—it goes beyond “feeling good.” Altering our moods for our own sake is one thing, but doing it for the welfare of those we love is another.
When we stop showing up to our loved ones with the tension we’ve accumulated throughout our day and start showing up with a greater sense of mindfulness through conscious breathing, our lives change and so does the way others feel in our presence.
Just before you see your loved ones next, possibly while in your car driving home from work today, try one or all of these practices to help you reset and drop you into a mindful state, where those you love will be served by the vibration you carry… all without having to say a word.
5 Practices You Can Do Before Reuniting with Your Loved Ones
1. 3-Minutes of Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing (5-Count Inhale / 2-Second Hold / 5-Count Exhale) You can drop-in to your parasympathetic nervous system in minutes using deep diaphragmatic breathing. Inhale for a 5 count, hold for 2 seconds, exhale for a 5 count; repeat for 3 minutes. Even soothing background music can help aid the transition.
2. 5-Minutes of Mindful Activity While Breathing Consciously A way we learn to integrate this skill into our lives and beyond the yoga studio, is to begin bringing awareness to your breath during simple daily activities. You can bring your attention to your breath while doing the dishes, while driving or while playing with your kids. Practice doing this 5-minutes daily and see the kind of shift that begins happening not only in yourself, but in those around you.
3. Use Your Breath to Invite Others to Relax Start a conversation with someone: a friend, a family member or even a complete stranger. As as you speak, become aware of your breath, where you are speaking from and the tempo at which you are speaking. Then begin making minor adjustments: open the front surface of your body, relax your face and shoulders, deepen your breath, slow your speech slightly and try speaking from your diaphragm. See if you can notice the moment the person you are talking to begins to relax. If done well, you’ll be able to see it. Their body will soften, open or even turn towards you. They will uncross their arms and/or legs. Their eyes will get slightly wider. Their breath may slow down a bit. You may even get them smile.
Notice the moment the shift happens.
These skills take time to develop, and it also takes some time to accurately see the shifts happening in others, but with daily practice, you can get quite good at it quickly.
4. Bring Awareness to Your Breath During Moments of Intimacy Another place where mindful breath has an ability to serve us deeply is in our intimate relationships. When we bring intentional, soothing conscious breath to those brief moments of intimacy, connection deepens and erotic sensation is amplified. Those neutral boring pecking kisses can be transformed once again into the ecstatic charge we once felt on that first kiss. Breath has the power to do this.
Slow yourself down before you engage with your partner. Take a deep breath or two, and move towards them deliberately, open and willing to connect. Share a conscious breath with your partner and just see where it takes you.
5. Breathe Your Purpose When we talk about breath and how it impacts ourselves and others, it’s important to also remember that it is impacting the way we show up in the world at large. When we transmit purpose and love through the quality of our breath, something larger than ourselves feels like it is supporting us throughout the day. When we know what it is we are living for and breathe from that place, we show up to the moment differently.
And it all starts with breath.