Choose to Breathe

I’ve been freelancing for more than 15 years now. As often as possible, I’ve focused my work in the natural-health field—as a host, producer, writer, voice-over talent, even as an actor on occasion. Sometimes, I’m very busy, juggling a number of projects; sometimes, everything wraps up at once and I’m not sure what’s next. It can be quite a roller coaster ride, never knowing where the next job is coming from.

Because I have difficulty living amid a lot of unknowns, my career path definitely presents challenges. I’m not the type to say to myself, “Don’t fret, Portland.  Everything’s going to be all right.  There’s no need to worry.” On the contrary, worry can overwhelm me. After years of giving into it, though, I can resolutely say that I’m sick and tired of the toll it takes on my body and mind.

After my Kripalu Perspectives interview with yoga teacher Rolf Gates, a former social worker trained in addictions, I was reminded that one of the best ways to treat my inner worrywart—an addict in her own right, it seems to me—is just to breathe, consciously.

And so I did. I sat upright, as Rolf suggested, and slowed my breath way down, inhaling on four counts and exhaling on five. The practice is one of the hundreds of breath-awareness techniques collectively known as pranayama—one of the eight limbs of yoga.

“When we slow and regulate the breath,” Rolf says, “we move out of the fight-or-flight response governed by the sympathetic nervous system and into the relaxation response governed by the parasympathetic nervous system. We shift into a calmer state of mind that’s better suited to handle whatever difficulty we’re facing.”

You’d think it would require a Herculean effort to unwind the worry waves that ripple through me like a tornado, but in the 10 minutes that I devoted to conscious breathing (Rolf recommends five to 10 minutes of pranayama every morning), I had the blissful experience of my inner chatterbox shutting up. How I love it when my mental wheels stop spinning and my witness takes center stage! Calmed by a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate, my witness doesn’t imagine herself in frightening future scenarios. Such a feat would be impossible for her, for she’s anchored in the present, trusting in whatever is happening in this moment, knowing that her voids are always filled in time.

“There’s a quote I love: ‘Zen is not making things worse,’” Rolf says. “The long-term practice of pranayama trains us out of our habitual stress responses and teaches us that, although life offers up many experiences, we don’t have to make things worse.”

I get what he’s saying. If I’m to keep freelancing, it’s inevitable that I’ll go through lulls, but I don’t have to respond to them with the same anxiety-ridden, fight-or-flight energy that gets my heart racing and twists my stomach in knots. I can inhale on four counts, exhale on five, and train my central nervous system to choose trust and ease over panic and fear. It’s a choice. And I choose to breathe.

Portland Helmich is the creator, host, and producer of the Kripalu Perspectives podcast series. She has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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