23 Mar

How proper breathing helped me in countless struggles of my life

In my life so far, I’ve been studying and discovering as many things that caught my interest as possible. Most of them were momentary challenges, but there’s one, the most important, that I think I’ll never be done with : the quest of self-discovery. 
I’ve never found anything as difficult as understanding myself, especially my mind, and find my path.

That’s mostly caused by how society works. Of course, it’s a system created to improve the quality of our coexistence giving us knowledge, comforts, safety, order, opportunities, technology, etc….but most of the times it ends up creating a disconnection from ourselves, and makes it very hard for us to listen to our inner voice and true desires. We keep chasing the next goal, in the hope of finding happiness, peace and wholeness. But all of this is usually to be found inside ourselves first, not outside.

So, like many people in this system, I’ve found myself struggling for most of my life now, getting through depression multiple times, in the attempt to finally understand the causes of my struggles and find peace with myself.

I’ve studied about meditation, psychology, emotional awareness, spiritual guidance, subconscious mind, creative energy, manifestation, intuition…….and every time I make a new step forward, the same realization strikes me once again. They’re always connected by the same basic principle : proper BREATHING

It’s amazing how such a basic and overlooked mechanism of our body can act as the main gate to connectedness and awareness of ourselves.

Luckily for me, I studied diaphragmatic breathing when I was very young because of singing. So, every time I needed something to anchor to in moments of anxiety, stress, racing thoughts……at least I knew how to slow down my mind with my breath. It was not enough to find me peace yet, but that’s for the next posts.

So, how does diaphragmatic breathing work?

The diaphragm is a muscle located beneath our lungs. When contracted, it goes down and air is sucked in our lungs. When relaxed, it goes back up and air is pushed out. It’s nothing unusual for our body. It’s the natural breathing technique we were born with.

The problem is, we grow up. We start feeling stressed, we start being conditioned, and we forget how to listen to our body. So, breathing becomes shallow and fast, instead of deep and slow. That’s why we need to remember how we are supposed to do it.

OpenStax College, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The basic principle is easy : instead of breathing in your upper chest and shoulders, you need to feel it down in your abdomen area. This is usually prevented by tightness and tension in your abs and lower back.

The easiest way to do this is by lying down on your back.
Place your hands on your belly and breathe normally for a few minutes. Then, focus your attention on your hands. Notice the movement. They go up when you inhale, and down when you exhale. That’s exactly the feeling we’re aiming for.

Another way to check this is by standing in front of a mirror.
Take a deep breath and pay attention to your shoulders position. If they go up a lot, it means you’re not doing it correctly. There shouldn’t be any noticeable movement there. Again, the expansion should be felt down in your belly area, not up in the chest. That’s why it’s also called “belly breathing”.

All of this should never be forced. No pushing or straining. It’s all about going back to what’s natural for our body.
What I experience is a filling sensation, starting from the center of my abdomen and gently expanding in all directions.
It’s definitely not a feeling of pushing or swell. That creates even more tension for me.

The most crucial aspect related to relaxation

Most of the times the focus is just on getting more air in. Filling your lungs entirely. But the most crucial aspect related to relaxation, which in my opinion is not stressed enough, is exactly the opposite : Let ALL the air go out first.

Give it a try. Take a normal breath, exhale and……hold your breath for a moment. Now, try to blow a little more air out, gently squeezing your abs in. You’ll most likely be surprised how much air was still inside.

When I do this, the following breath will be naturally deep and energetic. I don’t even need to focus on the technique. It’s like my body is “asking” for a deep breath because it’s ready for it.
It’s like saying that you need to let all the “dirty” air go out first, before being able to regenerate yourself with clean air.

Also, you’ll most likely realize that speed is important as well. Exhaling slowly feels empowering, it makes you feel more in control and calms you down. It gives a signal to your parasympathetic nervous system that there’s no threat or immediate danger, and you can go back to a normal, relaxed state.

Obviously, don’t exaggerate either with too much deep breathing, otherwise you could hyperventilate yourself and feel a bit dizzy. 😀 Again, it’s about being gentle, natural and balanced. Listen to your body, it knows what’s best for you.

So, my important points :

  • It’s not about pushing harder, be gentle on yourself always.
  • It should feel natural and relaxing
  • Shoulders shouldn’t move too much
  • The overall feeling is an expansion of the abdomen, sides and lower back
  • Remember to let ALL the air go out (slowly)

How it helped me in my life struggles

This saved me back in my mid-20s, when I experienced really strong anxiety attacks. The kind that makes you think you’re about to die. I was going through a very stressful couple of years, working on my debut album, doing more than I could to achieve what I thought was my only chance to get out of a life situation that wasn’t right for me. But I was doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

So, after my album’s release I soon realized that it wasn’t enough. I felt I was right at the start again, alone and with no energy left. And that’s when I started having a nervous breakdown, I suddenly lost weight (a lot) and started having anxiety attacks.

I didn’t know what to do. Being raised in an emotionally immature environment, I didn’t know how to handle my emotions. I didn’t know how to get through that. The only thing I knew was diaphragmatic breathing.

Luckily, after all those years of vocal training, I knew instinctively how to calm myself down through breathing, even through the worst attacks I had. Otherwise I would have felt completely lost.

That gave me the time to regain enough balance to get myself together and process what went wrong in my childhood/adolescence. That led to another release eventually, a single I called “Keep myself together” indeed, which marked for me the beginning of this journey to find my way back to my true self.

From then on, I learned how to regulate my emotions, listen to my body, regain control over my mind, release tension, have better sleep, and find my balance again through something “as simple as breathing”.

This is my experience. I’m an “expert” of myself, not anyone else.

I’m sharing this with you because my experience could serve you as a clue, maybe an inspiration, of something you’re looking for in this stage of your life. Something I wish I had in those bad moments but never had.

Andrea Ocello

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