Recently, my husband and I were planning for the upcoming holidays and our idea to manage one of the events created a bit of space in our juggling of connections. At the thought of this extra space, I felt my shoulders soften and fall away from my ears. My brow unfurled and my breathing lengthened, all signs I was feeling more at ease.
Another of our family events holds a greater risk of being difficult. At the thought of this other event, I noticed myself clench. My entire torso stiffened and my breathing became more shallow. I drew my shoulders and arms closer to my body and set my jaw as if I was preparing to defend myself in my clenched-ness.
Maybe you’re like me and you enjoy the idea of a holiday with your spouse where you don’t have to armor up or spend your time alone. As soon as I felt the clench, I said to myself, “Yup, time to ramp up the paying attention to my skeleton and how I’m holding myself.” Every stepmother who secretly dreads the upcoming holiday shuffle, raise her hand!
Even though my stepfamily now finds ways to soften into shared experience, I still remember the difficult years and can’t help but brace just thinking of some of them. My memories aren’t of how awful someone else was, they are of how difficult it was for me to hold on to myself amidst the turmoil. This year, I want something different for myself, so I decided to share.
For the next six weeks on this blog, I’ll guide you through the process I use in my daily life to pay attention to what I am doing so I can shift my experience and remain living inside my skin! The flow of these observations will ease your way as you navigate sticky situations. Once you feel comfortable with the process of paying attention to your posture, the benefits are yours to take along to graduations, weddings, or family vacations.
I’m naming the series, Know Thyself, because understanding what we are doing is the first step to accepting or changing it. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for turbulence in the coming weeks.
You’ll need a place to sit, stand, or lie down. You will also need to suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and a willingness to stay with it when it doesn’t seem like anything is happening in the first hours, days, and weeks.
Week One: Know Thy Breath
Sit, stand, or lie down. Put your feet shoulder distance apart and place your hands in a comfortable position. First, notice how long it takes you to draw in a breath? Watch many breaths to get the sense if they are similar or your breathing is inconsistent. It may change while you are watching it. That is normal.
How long does the breath stay inside you? Moments? One? Many? Is it comfortable? Do you feel stressed when the breath is full inside you? Do you hold it as if you don’t dare let it go? Do you hold it in case you make noise as you let it out and draw attention to yourself? Do your ribs move when you inhale? Do they expand forward, out to the sides, backward? Do you feel the air pushing on your internal organs, downward toward your pelvis. Does your belly get soft when you inhale or do you hold it tightly and the inhalation strains against the abdominal muscles?
Polonius: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
How long does an exhalation take to leave you? Do you find yourself releasing the breath in a sigh, messaging your disapproval or disagreement? Do you have to push to get the air out, or does it leave with no restriction? Is the amount of air leaving you the same as the amount of air that came in on the inhalation? Is it more? Is it less? Do you feel the shape of your torso change when you exhale? Do you get shorter or taller with an exhalation?
Can you sense the effects of your breath on your sternum, your ribs, your belly, your back, your shoulders, or your neck? The rest of your body?
The next time you are sitting at the dinner table with your stepfamily and things aren’t going so well, or even if they are fine, bring your attention to your breath. Pay attention to the inhaling, exhaling, length of the breath, how much air, the way your ribs move or don’t move when you take air in and let it out.
Every time you can over the next week, pay attention to your breathing. Make a game of it. See if you can pay attention to your breathing while you sit at a stoplight, have coffee with a friend, get your child ready for school, debate the merits of bedtime with your spouse, write out and mail holiday greetings, or spend time reading this blog.
Your work is to pay attention. For now, please don’t try to change anything. This exercise is not to see if you can change your breathing. You are not to make the breathing longer or shorter or purposely expand your ribs or stop holding your breath. You are simply paying attention.
Of course, once you turn your attention to something it will change. But, it will be best if you think of yourself as an observer, simply cataloging, in as many situations as you can, what it is that you do with your breathing.
You can write your observations on paper or just remember. Whatever you remember is enough. This activity is you, shifting your attention from time to time to observe your breathing patterns.
That is all.
It will be enough, one week of paying attention to the anatomy of your breathing.
Ready . . . set . . . notice!
Disclaimer: For some of us, noticing ourselves is exactly what we are trying to avoid. If that is you, please read along with us and use your resources to support you as you work through each week’s activities. Seek professional help if you have any questions about your readiness. If in doubt, wait and take part later when you feel more prepared.
Note: I’d love to know if you are participating. You can message me privately or you can comment here to say, “I’m in” or “I’m in, in Portland (or, the name of your city).” That way, we’ll all know we are breathing together.