Practicing Spiritual Formation Part 1: Take a Deep Breath
How many times have you heard this phrase? Take a deep breath.
Maybe when you've been at a doctor's appointment. Perhaps when you've participated in some form of group exercise. Maybe a parent or other caring person (or not so caring depending on the tone used) has told you this when you've been upset. Did you do it? Did you do it willingly or reluctantly? How did you feel after taking that deep breath? I'm guessing at least a little bit calmer, more connected with your own emotional, spiritual and mental state.
This wasn't magic. It was actually science. And a mechanism God placed in our bodies for a reason.
Let me break down for you what happens in your body when you breathe deeply. Our brains (along with every part of our bodies) need copious amounts of oxygen to keep functioning well. When you take a deep breath, you're doing 2 things. First, you're sending extra oxygen to the front of your brain- a part called the prefrontal cortex- which helps engage more logic-based thinking in order to better engage whatever information is coming at you.
The second thing taking a deep breath does is signal the parasympathetic nervous system- the part of your nervous system that's responsible for rest and relaxation- to turn on. So while taking a deep breath does feel quite nice most of the time, the reason you feel calmer and more relaxed is because the act of breathing actually impacts the chemistry happening in your brain.
When you breathe in deeply and intentionally, you are telling your brain "its time to be calm" and you are creating space for yourself.
Ok, ok, so what does this have to do with spiritual formation?
Well... a piece of being formed spiritually is taking intentional time to pause and connect with yourself and with God. When life gets busy, as it often does, taking a deep breath (or 10 or 100 deep breaths) is a useful practice that can be done any time, anywhere. I'll use an example that's not too far from the truth of my regular experience.
Let's say you're at the grocery store. You're in line to check out and your toddler asks for one of whatever temptations they have in the checkout line to get unsuspecting parents to buy yet one more thing they don't need. When you calmly say "no, honey, not today," she begins to beg and then whine and then pout and then scream and then cry... If you're like me in this scenario, you might begin to feel your face flush as you wonder what others are thinking, or maybe you don't really care what others think, but you don't particularly like the way your child is behaving.
Some possible options:
1) Start crying yourself
2) Get super mad and yell at your kid
3) Ditch the cart full of stuff and run out of the store as fast as you can
4) Take a deep breath...
Allow your breath to reconnect you to God and remind you that He's in this with you.
Allow it to help you pause and look up (see what I did there?). Allow it to calm you.
Now if you're not a parent or have perfectly angelic children, pick another scenario where you feel stressed, irritated, discombobulated, and mildly panicked. The same can work there, too.
So how do we "do" this deep breathing thing?
We're going to use a wonderful part of our body called the diaphragm. Your diaphragm is a large muscle that sits just below your lungs. If you lie on the floor on your back and place your hand at the top of your belly, right between where your ribcage begins to widen... its right in there. Next, still lying on the floor, breathe in. If you're breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should expand up into the air and your hand should move up. When you breathe out, your hand and belly should go back down. Now you've got the hang of it! You can get up off the floor now.
Next, find your rhythm. Counting can be helpful here so take a deep yet comfortable-feeling breath and count how long it takes you to get to the top of the breath. For me, I feel best when I count to 6 as I breathe in. Then, hold for 2-3 seconds and count again as you release the breath. Repeat this as many times as you want to, or have time for.
That's it! That's how you do deep breathing. It's that simple. You don't have to be lying down, or have your eyes closed, or be sitting in a field of flowers. You can do this any time, anywhere. I hope this new practice helps you connect with yourself and ultimately with the God who made you...