Not long after my car accident I discovered this amazing video on Brainstreams, the website for the British Columbia Brain Injury Association. In it, fellow survivor and Canadian actor Lesley Ewen guides us in the practice of taking long, slow, deep breaths.
I so clearly remember the deep relief I felt after following her videos for the first time. I had been so consumed with worry, but this practice of slowing down to just breathe felt deeply healing. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I would say that it was like a magic portal to nervous system regulation. It made me feel calm.
So for the whole acute post-concussion phase I kept following her videos. Eventually I was able to do the practice without her support. Taking long, slow, deep breaths has become a daily practice. It is a reliable resource I can turn to to help settle my system.
I allow my attention to land on the sensations of breathing (the rise and fall of my belly or the feeling of the cool air coming in and the warm air going out of my nostrils). My attention wanders to worries, to woes, and then I gently, but firmly, I bring my attention back to the breath and I feel that relief of the sweet goodness of the gathered mind flood me once again.
Sometimes, however, paying intimate attention to the sensations of breathing is NOT settling at all. Sometimes my breathing is so short and shallow that letting my attention land on those sensations is dysregulating, rather than regulating.
In fact, for some people paying attention to breath, especially when they are first learning mindfulness, doesn’t feel like a supportive anchor of attention at all. This is very normal. For this reason I don’t introduce prolonged breathing practices in my 8 week Mindful Concussion course until several weeks in. I want people to try out a whole host of other anchors first so they really get that paying attention to the sensations of breathing is just one of many options.
In the months after my accident I was too out of it to try more formal mindfulness practices, but when I did I was surprised to find that so often teachers encourage us to just notice the breath, but not change it in any way. This surprised me. Why would I want to notice that my breath is short and shallow, and not encourage it to soften into long, slow, and deep?
While I encourage myself and my students to incline towards long, slow and deep, it is important not to strive for long, slow and deep at times when our breath is short and shallow. With mindfulness we can recognize, oh, my breath is short and shallow right now. That’s OK. We can ask ourselves some questions: Can I slow it down a wee bit? It’s OK if that’s not possible. Can I acknowledge the discomfort of short and shallow breathing without pushing it away, without pulling it in and getting lost in worries about it? Can I let go of resistance to what is happening in this moment, while still gently encouraging the exhale to be longer than the inhale?
There is lots more to say about working with the breath in future posts, but for now, here again is the link to the Brainstreams video. See how it sits with you. You might find that you like it. You might find that you dislike it. No worries either way. Everybody and every body is different. It’s just part of the Grand Experiment to see what works for you.