A project dear to our hearts
 Raising Our Voices
 Writing Our Lives
Stories That Want To Be Told
 The Calming Breath

 A simple technique


The Calming Breath (calms the Breather in minutes and builds resiliency at the same time).

Breath is the gateway into the body and the unconscious. Aside from being relaxing,  the Calming Breath has many health and mental health benefits including lowering blood pressure, alleviating feelings of stress, anxiety and depression because it lowers production of stress hormones.  If you are stressed long enough, then you will soon be living in the survival mode which means functioning from the mid-brain: reactive, aggressive or withdrawn, poor sleep, irritable, depressed.  If the stress has been more intense as it is with many of  our combat vets or those who live in the inner city war zones or whose direct descendants suffered Adverse Events, you are more likely than not to have brain changes/suppressed DNA that you will pass on and/or have inherited yourself.  

You will feel better quickly doing the 5 minute Calming Breath exercise but it won’t “hold” without practice because it is the practice of the Calming Breath that gives it strength and endurance and most important because it makes brain changes. Learning anything takes repetition for the brain to “get it.” 

Then, having trained yourself to do the Calming Breath you have built resilience -- you can more easily bounce back quickly from upset.  Just taking a deep breath when you are upset without doing the Calming Breath as a practice may only last a bit.  

Psycho-neurobiology tells us that traumatic stress from an incident or chronic high stress conditions like living in a dangerous area, puts our bodies into survival – fight, flee, run like crazy or hide. When Fight or Flight is the constant, the parasympathetic nervous system that stimulates self-soothing hormones is weakened and we lose the ability to soothe and comfort ourselves.

If traumatic symptoms are not resolved and we can’t access self-soothing hormones, we often look to drugs, alcohol and high risk behavior.  High risk behavior stresses the body so severely that the exhausted self-soothing hormone system will give what little it can to the cause.  Knowing this, we “get” why some of our PTSD combat veterans get hooked on the cycle of severe stress - relax. They might lo e dangerous activities where they scare themselves silly and then they stop, the self-calming hormones kick in AHHH.  High risk behavior produces enough adrenaline to stir the weakened parasympathetic nervous system into action where it will initiate self-calming hormones – a leap off the cliff on your snow board for traumatized veteran may be an attempt to get at the self-soothing hormones. Instead of the snowboard approach, he can ride his breath to a different destination with the Calming Breath.

One of the first and best ways to strengthen the self-soothing system is by consciously slowing the breath  to about six breaths a minute. This easy method is used in disaster areas and war zones with great success but to change the self-soothing system we have to develop a routine where we practice the Calming Breath.  One great way, especially for children, is blowing bubbles: one deep short breath in and then a long breath out.  Inhale to four and exhale to ten or close as you can get.  Keep Bubbles in your Emergency Art Kit.                 

Otherwise we remain in survival, in a high alert mode scanning our environment -- am I safe, am I safe, am I safe?  When children have been highly stressed this physical response can look like and is often diagnosed as ADD/ ADHD, which is now being diagnosed epidemic proportions.  Our attention disorders or is it that most of these children are suffering symptoms of Toxic Stress?


Getting ready to do the Calming Breath

Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.  Sit with a straight spine, feet on the floor – make sure your legs aren't crossed.  Pull back your shoulders as you sit up straight. You can let your hands sit on your legs with palms up. 

Become aware of your breathing.

Awareness is a very important beginning step. Just notice! Don’t try to change anything just focus on your breath to get a sense of how you breathe ordinarily. Just notice.  Do you breathe with your chest primarily?  Just notice. Do you breathe with your belly? Just notice. Then check your body to see where your shoulders are. Just notice. Stressed people often hold their shoulders high.  Often just breathing deeply and well, will automatically drop our shoulders.

Breath should be: slow, quiet, rhythmic and deep.

Doing the Calming Breath:

1. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth.  Take another deep breath through your nose filling your belly and let it out smoothly and easily through your mouth with your lips almost closed.  

2. Close your eyes or focus, eyes open, on a soothing image or on something in the place where you are practicing that is soothing.  Breathe by filling your belly and as you do this allow the breath to move up into your chest and lungs. Always breathe into your belly first!   When your lungs are full, stop and hold the breath for 2 seconds.  You can lengthen the time of the hold as you practice. Often seven is the number of seconds you should hold but don’t push yourself or strain.

3. At the end of the exhalation gently squeeze your ribs tightly and pull in your belly to empty your lungs while quietly repeating the sound lalalalalala which allows the exhalation to smoothly empty your lungs.

4. Pause for two seconds.

5. Then allow your belly and lungs to smoothly inflate/inhale. 

The Calming Breath --   Breathe deeply, quietly, regularly and smoothly. Breathe in through nose filling your belly. When your belly is full your lungs will fill

Squeeze the air from your lungs and belly by pulling your rib cage and if you want, say "lalalalalla".


Release into the next inhalation as your belly automatically breathes.

Do this twice a day for about five minutes. It is important that you keep these morning and evening appointments with yourself.  Spend time that is realistic even if it is only two minutes to begin with. Do Breath-work no longer than 20 minutes.  Most people find that doing the breath work five to seven minutes’ works best for their temperament and schedules. Find your place.

Be realistic about the amount of time you will REALLY spend so that you are sure to keep this appointment with yourself.  This is not a contest but a support and strengthening of your ability to calm yourself under stress. You are building is resilience which will help you to “bounce back” from difficult and stressful life experiences.                                        

Again, it is more important that you keep these morning and evening dates with yourself than it is to work to extend the time.  You do not want to push the time limit.  If you push at all, it should be to just keep your date with yourself to breathe deeply, quietly, regularly and smoothly

To repeat: these are the guiding words for The Calming Breath -- smooth, deep, regular and quiet.  As you focus on breathing slowly, deeply (belly), regularly (rhythmically) and quietly, it is easier to keep your attention on your breath.   When you find your attention has wandered away from noticing your breath, just quietly say “thinking” and return your attention to your breath. 

This is a gift you can give to yourself.  It serves the whole family well.  Teach them as you learn.  What better gift to give than the skills to calm and comfort yourself?

To teach your children the Calming Breath start by giving them a bottle of Bubbles and a wand  telling them to take a deep breath so they can make many bubbles.  Keep this as part of your Emergency Art Kit.  See Resources. 


Who We Are

We make art in order not to die from the truth.

Ashlar Center for Narrative Arts is a U.S. 501c3 non-profit organization designed to serve the personal story and address the trauma it may contain. Our work is educational and skills driven -- grounded in thirty years of community based experience.

We use photos, interviews, and teach guided writing (Writing Through the Body).  For those people for whom revealing identity is unsafe or who are non-literate, they are offered an opportunity to  build a multi-media piece to contain and share the story in an abstract or symbolic form. Our goal is Witnessing and facilitating the creation of a coherent narrative for our students as they move with us toward well-being and resilience. 

Following from our initial work with Story, we collaborate with students to create a culturally relevant Self-Care program facilitated by them.

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