I remember the first time I heard those words. It was in the early 90s and I was in a North Broward Hospital conference room with my fellow Master’s degree students from the University of Miami. In those days a “distance” program, meant that the faculty traveled north from Carol Gables and students traveled from 3 southwestern Florida counties to meet on weekends. Dr. Carol Davis was teaching a class on patient-practitioner interaction. She taught me many things that I used throughout my career as a physical therapist, but the taking time to “Come to Your Breath” was not one of them. Though I have no regrets over the course of my career, I do wish I had embraced this concept when first introduced to it.
It would take me 20 more years to learn the importance of “coming to your breath”. Now it is the first thing I say in each yoga class that I teach. Here’s why it is so very important:
Oxygen-Carbon Dioxide Exchange. Breathing is something we do automatically and this gas exchange is vital to life as we know it. Taking air into the depths of our lungs promotes Oxygen rich blood that nourishes every cell in out body. Sending air out from the depths of our lungs rids the body of toxins. “Detoxing” is a popular thing to do these days. You can detox every day by just breathing deeply.
Rib and Spine Mobility. Breathing in and out is a mechanical process. The process of inhalation expands the rib cage and creates gentle backward bending of the spine. Exhalation can be passive where the rig cage and spine fall back to neutral. But it can also be active. Muscles between the ribs both lift and lower them when breathing deeply or more vigorously, like during aerobic exercise. My observation is that people are very stiff through the rib cage and the thoracic spine where the ribs attach. This section of the spine is more immobile than areas above and below due to these attachments. But it is still supposed to move. Our inactivity during daily life is creating stiffness throughout the spine. By just taking time to breathe deeply several times a day, you can begin to gain mobility.
Observe the Pattern of Breathing. Are you holding your breath? Are you fully using all aspects of your lungs all the way down to your belly? When you take a big breath, do you notice the stiffness in the ribs and spine? Just observing the breath should make you curious about your pattern of breathing and why it may be different from normal 3-part breath: Inhale into the belly, then ribs and then into your chest; Exhale letting the chest fall, then the ribs fall and then your belly fall.
Awareness of Breath is the first step in practicing Mindfulness. Every book that I have read on Mindfulness starts with Awareness of Breath. "AOB" as George Mumford puts it in Mindful Athlete. The process of bringing your attention to your breath helps you quiet your mind. I say this: “Let the focus on your breath bring down all the mental activity of the day. Allow yourself to be in this moment.” I heard this recently: “Leave your mind alone”. Even if for only 1, 3, or 10 breaths. This practice helps you create space between what you are doing and just being. As Jon Kabat-Zin says, “we are human beings, not human doers”. We have put value and judgement on what we can accomplish rather than on who we can be and this creates an enormous amount of stress.
So please, in this moment take the time to “Come to Your Breath”.