A Breathing Break

It is easy to dismiss something that sounds as insignificant as a breathing break. I didn’t even capitalize it—see how small that seems? But in the eight months since losing my dad, and the year that my sister and I took care of him through pancreatic cancer and treatment, I have learned that a breathing break can restore me to peace, sanity, empowerment and clarity. It can take me from a state of untenable stress to serenity.

I have been an occasional meditator, but not very consistent. Over the past year, I definitely stepped into the practice more. What drove me to it was a sometimes desperate need for peace. The body needs activity; but the mind thrives on stillness. A breathing break is an essential and very simple practice of stillness. While you can really grow as a meditator by sitting for 20 minutes or longer, you can profoundly shift your state of mind by focusing on your breath for just 3 minutes. (And if you don’t have 3 minutes, you could do it in 2.)

For the first minute I just collect myself. I set aside what I’ve been doing. Tune into what things feel like around my solar plexus. Relax my throat, mouth, face, eyes. If you want you can start to count breaths, or just use the first minute to step away from your activities and into the present.

As the second minute begins, start counting your breaths. Each exhale is one. Don’t force a rhythm, but let one find you. If your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the count. All other thoughts are just flecks of dust–you don’t need to engage or reject them. Toward the end of this minute or the beginning of the next, you’ll probably feel inclined to take a deeper, longer breath. It feels like folding your wings over a nest.

At the beginning of the third minute start counting breaths again. You’ll feel them deepening even more. Feel the space at the end of the exhale, and then the inhale that comes naturally from letting the exhale fully play out. Give each breath your full attention with the realization that you’ll breathe a limited number of times in your life. That thought can give you a kind of intimacy with each breath.

When you’ve come to the end of the third minute, turn your attention back outward and see if you can bring the stillness along into whatever you do next. You’ll probably find that you took fewer breaths in the third minute than you did in the first or second. For me just now it was 13 breaths in the first minute, 9 in the second, and not quite 8 in the third.

What’s going on physiologically? In that 2-3 minute window, you have increased your heart rate variability, which, in addition to providing the sense of peace, is a good indicator of cardiac and nervous system health. If you’re curious, there are plenty of cardiologists and meditation-happy academics doing research on that front. And there are even HRV apps. But do you need them? What could be simpler and sweeter than a breathing break?