The Three Breath Challenge
Dearest fellow aerobic beings,
What’s the thing we do approximately 17,000-23,000 times daily without even thinking about it? That’s right, you guessed it: we breathe. (That’s right, you also guessed it: I did a very scientific Google search to find that number). Along with the beating of the heart, it’s one of the things that the body does most often, without the need for any instruction, external cues, or additional physical effort (in healthy individuals, at least). It’s one of the body’s most intuitive, natural occurrences, and it’s essential for survival as a living human being (no surprise there).
I’m not here to get all scientific with you (but if you’re wondering what aerobic means–it’s just a fancy way of saying that we’re all beings who require oxygen in order to survive). Instead–I’m here to, once again, step into my yoga teacher role and explain to you how incorporating small, mindful bouts of breathing into your daily life can manifest goodness in so many ways. Let’s take a minute to talk about what breathing does, energetically speaking, for our bodies. When we take a deep breath, we not only invite fresh oxygen for exchange with carbon dioxide in the lungs, but we also create space–space between the throat and the upper chest, space between each rib, and space between the low belly and the pelvic floor. In more abstract terms, though (go with me here), the methodical rhythm between the inhale and the exhale can also create space that extends beyond what can be felt in the physical body. While the feeling of lightness in the chest or expansion of the lower abdomen can be felt and sometimes even seen, how often do we consider that this breath can also create a similar sensation of increased space within the mind?
I think oftentimes many of our perceived problems are a result of a lack of space. Our lives are too cramped, too busy, and too overrun with to-do lists and expectations we hold for ourselves. We’re always on the run, bombarding our subconscious minds with external stimuli–noises, words, pictures, videos…the list goes on. Whether we consciously realize it or not, we’re constantly packing, shoving, and pushing things into our mind space. It’s like the daunting task of packing the car for family vacation–everyone only needs one bag, but brings three anyways and insists that they all have to fit. After a feat of organizational mastery, everything ends up fitting, but the pile of bags overflowed to block dad’s view of the rear view mirror (sound familiar to anyone?). Everyone knew it was a bad idea to shove 10 bags into a 7 bag capacity trunk, but chose to go through with it anyways. Now, not only is everyone in for an uncomfortable, cramped ride, but the decreased visibility of the driver risks the safety of the entire trip.
In a lot of ways, I think we treat our lives that car. We’re constantly trying to find ways to fit “things” in (aka thoughts, tasks, relationships, expectations, comparisons, etc.), piling one thing on top of the another, without ever stopping to think “hey, have I created enough space in my life for this ‘thing’ to fit comfortably?” and…probably more importantly, “do I even need to fit this ‘thing’ in?” If we aren’t asking ourselves these questions on a regular basis, then we inevitably end up feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and overcommitted–sometimes by things that don’t really even matter all that much. Above all, overloading these “things” into nonexistent space obstructs the clarity that we need in order to find meaning, motivation, and perspective in our own lives (the rear-view mirror of life, if you will).
What am I getting at here? We all need to create SPACE. What’s the easiest way to do that on a daily basis? By taking three, deep, undistracted breaths–multiple times throughout the day. I’m calling this the “Three Breath Challenge” because it sounds more exciting that way….and I find that us competitive aerobic beings (aka the people who probably need this the most) really respond to the word “challenge.” Here are some times during the day that make the most sense to me to insert these mindful breaths:
- Before stepping out of bed or looking at your phone in the morning. Center yourself before the day even begins. Create space for a calm, focused day.
- Before taking the first bite of any meal. Create space for gratitude, proper digestion, and undistracted time with yourself or those you may be sharing the meal with. (If you’d like to read my thoughts on the power of mindful eating, click here!)
- Before getting angry about sitting in traffic or honking at that “slow poke” in front of you. Create space for patience, understanding, and perspective. Contrary to popular belief, you will be just fine—even if you’re a few minutes late.
- Before doing anything that’s even of slight importance–taking an exam, going to a job interview, sending an big email or text, making a powerful phone call, deciding what to wear (a daily struggle for me), making relationship decisions…whatever it is! Create space for clarity.
- Before you start complaining about how much you have to do. Yes, we’re all busy…but haven’t you gotten it all done before? You did, and you will. Create space to prioritize what’s really important and get rid of the rest.
- Before going to sleep at night, after phone time has ended and it’s finally time to retire from the day. Create space for relaxation and rejuvenation.
These are just a few ideas. Feel free to adapt this list to your own life, keeping in mind the times during the day when you’re tempted to pack more than necessary into your already loaded-down life. With every inhale, focus on creating space for anything that adds a sense of wholeness to your life. With every exhale, focus on ridding yourself of anything that is stale, negative, or chipping away at your innate wholeness. You can complete the Three Breath Challenge anywhere and everywhere–that’s the simple beauty of it! Put goodness in, get goodness out.
P.S. If you’re completing the challenge at home, consider trying some of these simple poses that can help center the body and the mind for a meditative breathing practice. The yoga postures pictured and explained below are also great in helping to relieve lower back pain. I’d recommend these poses mostly to help unwind at the end of the day, but you can sprinkle them throughout your day as time and space allow.
- Supported easy pose is simple and requires minimal physical effort. Place a block under your sits bones (aka the two bony projections in your rear end), and move forward slightly until your sits bones roll just slightly over the edge of the block. This will bring your spine into an alignment that honors its natural curvature–this means a happier low back! As you can see here, my back-body is nicely stacked: sits bones under hips, hips under shoulders, and shoulders under ears. Side note: if you don’t own a yoga block, a short stack of textbooks should do the trick. If you’re going to invest in one yoga prop, however, I would definitely recommend a block. They’re very inexpensive and can be used as support in almost every pose.
- For lack of a better pose name, I call this one supported kneeling easy pose. I only have one block at home, but I typically like to use two blocks in this pose. Come to a kneeling position and slide the block(s) long-ways underneath your seat. Once again, roll your sits bones slightly towards the wall behind you and feel your spine come into its natural curvature. Stack the shoulders over the hips and find a soft gaze in front of you. If you’d like, close your eyes and find the deep breaths here.
- Supported bridge pose is my personal favorite as far as restorative, back-pain relief poses are concerned. Lie down on your back and bend your knees so that your heels are an inch or two in front of the sits bones–when you extend your arms by your sides, you should be able to graze the backs of the heels with your fingertips. Ground the shoulder blades and the back of the head into the mat as you begin to press down through the heels to lift your hips off of the floor. Slide the block underneath the sacrum (the triangular bone at the very base of the spine–usually, about where the top waistband of your pants sit). Sometimes this takes a little bit of adjustment to feel right in the body, but once you have it, it should feel like sweet relief for your lower back. The block can be on any height setting that feels best for your body, but I would recommend staying with the lowest to middle height setting for the best, most relaxing, results here.
- Legs up the wall is another favorite of mine, and can be done anywhere you have a little bit of open wall space. As you can see in the picture, I closed my closet door and used it as a makeshift wall! Begin seated on the ground with the side body turned towards the wall, one shoulder lightly touching it. As you start to lie down, slide your heels up the wall so that your legs begin to stack over your hips. Once your back is fully on the ground, you may have to scoot your lower back closer to the wall or farther away from it, depending on what feels best. If you’d like, you can also do this one in bed if there is a wall or a tall headboard nearby. Stay and find your breath here, maybe even play around with placing the hands on the belly to feel the rhythm of inhalations and exhalations. If you’re like me, you can come down when your feet start to fall asleep…