It’s easy to feel frantic this time of year.
Spring has sprung. The abundant light and warmer temperatures put a renewed bounce in our step. To-do lists in hand, we charge out from winter’s womb ready to accomplish things, to move mountains.
The manic pace of our busy lives can lead us to achievements great and small, but it can also lead to stress. If left unchecked, chronic stress can, over time, tax our bodies, strain our relationships, and chain us to lives of obligation without enjoyment. We soon resemble the Israelite slaves of our Passover tale. We strain and suffer to build the pyramids, our time dominated by external demands, our lives feeling less like a precious gift and more like a perpetual struggle.
When anxiety and stress threaten to overwhelm, we don’t need to wait for a miracle to set us free. The road to liberation can begin with one simple, mindful breath.
When we take slow, deep, mindful breaths, focusing our attention on the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation, our mood begins to shift. Our state of mind transforms. Feelings of relaxation and spaciousness supplant the vice-grip of high-octane anxiety. Moments ago, we were drowning in a barrage of emails, appointments, and obligations. Now, by virtue of the breath, we face these same activities with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and courage. The tasks themselves haven’t changed—it’s our mind, our perspective, that’s changed.
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have just recently discovered the fundamental, neurological connection linking breath, mind, and mood.They have identified a small cluster of neurons, located in the brainstem, that monitor changes in respiration. When our breathing shifts, these neurons communicate this change to another structure in our brainstem, the one controlling our level of alertness and vigilance. Fast, shallow breathing sends a message, via these neurons, to the brain and body: Oy Vey! Oy Vey! Slow, deep breathing sends the opposite message: A-Okay…A-Okay…
You can experience this breath-brain-body connection right here, right now. Just pause for a moment, breathe in and out through the nose, and focus your attention on the sensations of the breath. Notice the feeling of the air passing through the nostrils. Notice the chest and ribcage expand and contract. Listen to the sound of your breath blending with other sounds near or far—the sound of a passing car, a conversation, a chirping bird, a ringing phone. Try three to five breaths like this and then take a short inventory of how you feel physically, emotionally, mentally, even spiritually. You may find yourself located in the exact spot where you started, but notice if anything has shifted within.
Jewish tradition invites us, every Passover season, to view an ancient tale of slavery and freedom through the prism of contemporary concern. What enslaves us today? What will set us free? We may not have shackles binding our limbs. We may not feel the sting of the taskmaster’s whip. Yet, for so many of us, chronic stress leaves us weak and weary. A few mindful breaths won’t make all our obligations disappear. Still, a practice of mindful breathing can provide us the relaxation of body and peace of mind we need not just to survive, but to thrive.