11 Women Reflect On The Power Of Breath

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Whatever we are doing, our breath is always with us. Paying attention to our breathing realigns us to one of our body's most essential and restorative rhythms. Feeling our breath is part of many mindfulness and movement practices, and is a simple yet practical tool for wellness and self-care.

As one of the mindfulness teachers we spoke to says, our breath is our ally. In the quotes below, 11 women reflect on the power of breath.

Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7, and former Brownie, tells CircleAround:

“Breath is the center of our being. We are born with our first inhalation and die with our last exhalation. What happens between these two definitive moments frames our entire essence... Belly breathing is a great way to center ourselves, again and again.”

Linda E. Carlson, University of Calgary Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology and co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology Research and Practice, and former Brownie, says:

“Using the breath as an anchor in the present helps to regulate its pace; just by paying attention, our breath becomes more regular, smooth, and calm. Calming the breath leads to a whole cascade of beneficial psychophysiological effects [like] decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, and leads to feelings of being more focused and relaxed.”

In her 2010 book, Real Happiness, meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg offers breath-based meditation instructions that ask people to gently tune into and return to the sensations of the breath:

“Just feel your breath as it happens… Perhaps it’s predominant at the nostrils, perhaps at the chest or abdomen. Then rest your attention lightly — as lightly as a butterfly rests on a flower — on just that area… Every time you find yourself speculating about the future, replaying the past, or getting wrapped up in self-criticism, shepherd your attention back to the actual sensations of the breath... That’s life; starting over, one breath at a time.”

Vita Pires, executive director of the Prison Mindfulness Institute and former Girl Scout, says, “In prisons, I often say ‘Your breath is your ally’ after teaching prisoners some basic breath techniques and giving mindfulness of breath instructions.” People who are incarcerated have told her they remember and use this phrase. She adds:

“Your breath is an ally that you always have access to, to help you calm down in difficult situations and ground yourself in the present moment, which will allow you to have a calmer, clearer mind to make a fresh start in any situation.”

During Tricycle magazine’s 2017 meditation challenge, meditation teacher and author Ruth King shared:

“One of the practices I try throughout the day is keeping at least 50% of my awareness on the body and breath. Even if I'm talking with someone, I want to stay close into this sense of how my body is feeling; where my breath is, and how I can be more and more in this moment.”

Susan J. McCulley, a mindful movement teacher, writer, and former Girl Scout, says:

“Breath awareness brings us into the body, and the body can be nowhere but here and now. The genius of the breath is its ability to bring us back... while simultaneously relaxing and energizing us.”

“Because the breath becomes shallow, and the body becomes tense, when the mind is disturbed, lengthening the breath calms the body,” psychologist and meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein wrote in the publication Lion’s Roar in 2019. When she is struggling, she tells herself:

“Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”

In the fall of 2021, Dr. Thema Bryant, professor and incoming president-elect of the American Psychological Association, reminded us that making space for the breath can soothe our weary souls when she tweeted:

“Take breath. Take sacred pause. Refuse to hurry. Stop multitasking. You’re worthy of ease. From the top of your head to the soles of your feet, release.”

Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University Lisa Feldman Barrett says:

“Breathing is how you can control sympathetic nervous system activity to calm your body. There is some indication that if practiced regularly, mindful, slow breathing, six to eight breaths a minute, can help you sleep better and think more clearly; improve your attention.”

In a 2020 interview with Vox, psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach also spoke to the power of this approach to deep breathing:

“Take at least three full breaths, counting to five with the inhale, and counting to five with the exhale… Our breath is often the most helpful home base for coming out of our circling worry thoughts and back into our senses.”

Alivia Morris, former Brownie and director of the UK-based and youth-focused company The Mental Health Teacher, says practicing breath awareness leads to engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system to release oxytocin and endorphins. She says, “When this nervous system is engaged, adrenaline production is inhibited, and a sense of overall well-being is achieved.” She also tells CircleAround:

“Breath anchors our thoughts onto our physical bodies and fuses our mental and physical worlds together… When practicing breath awareness… We live in the moment — the only time we can live in.”

If breath work is not accessible for you or is not something you enjoy, paying attention to other aspects of your experience and environment might be grounding. As Brach told Vox:

“We can also come back to the sounds we’re hearing in the moment, or the sensation of our hands or feet tingling, or the sight of a tree or table. Coming back to the senses in our body helps us come back to the present moment.”

Our breath can serve as a doorway into deeper awareness of our experiences and provide respite when these experiences become too much. Deep breathing in particular can have a calming effect, helping us focus, come into the present moment, and reduce pain intensity.

Tags: healthy living, Mindfulness, Self Care

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Written By

Julia Travers

Julia Travers is a writer who often covers social and cultural topics. Find her at NPR, Art News, YES! Magazine and other outlets. See Full Bio

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