How to Adopt a Soft-Belly Breathing Practice
By James Gordon, MD
The basis of our work is the idea that everybody has the capacity to better understand themselves and to work with one another to develop programs of healing, both for individuals and for whole communities. Anyone can learn the techniques that we teach.
Psychological trauma comes to everybody. It’s not something that happens only to people who’ve been in a war or people who’ve been in the most abusive families imaginable. It comes to all of us.
Learning to stay and relax in the present moment is an antidote to stress and to trauma. What trauma is about, when it’s not ongoing, is not so much the events that happened. It’s about our reactions to those events. We often stay in the same state of tension, anxiety, anger, or fear that we had during those events—which were necessary to cope with whatever the threat was—but that are no longer serving us well.
One of the simplest and most effective tools I’ve found for grounding in the present moment is soft-belly breathing (which I’ve described how to do below). Breathing slowly and deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth with the belly soft and relaxed brings more air into the bottom of our lungs, where there’s better oxygen exchange. This kind of breathing also activates the vagus nerve, this big nerve that wanders up from the belly, through the chest, back to the central nervous system, to the brain. It slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, relaxes the big muscles in our bodies that are tense if we’re in a fight-or-flight response, and affects our digestion.
This kind of breathing quiets activity in the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure in the emotional brain that’s responsible for fear and anger. We’re also activating centers in the frontal part of our cerebral cortex that are responsible for self-awareness, thoughtful decision-making, and compassion. And we’re engaging a branch of the vagus nerve that is responsible for facial expression and speech. So we’re doing a lot: We’re quieting the fight-or-flight response; subduing fear and anger; enhancing self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and compassion; and making it easier to read other people’s facial expressions, to tune in to their speech, and to bond with them.
This is a nondenominational concentrative meditation, it’s easy for anybody to do. Start by allowing your breathing to deepen. If it feels comfortable, let your eyes close. That eliminates a great deal of external stimulation.
You’ll be breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth with your belly soft and relaxed. Perhaps say to yourself, “Soft,” as you breathe in, and “Belly,” as you breathe out. You’re concentrating on the breath, on the word “soft” as you breathe in, and “belly” as you breathe out. Focus on the feeling of the belly softening.
When we breathe slowly and deeply like this, in through the nose and out through the mouth with our belly soft and relaxed, all the muscles in our bodies begin to relax. And perhaps you can feel this as you exhale. Feeling relaxation in your belly and your pelvis and your buttocks. In your legs and feet. Feeling the relaxation all up and down your back, feeling all of your back muscles relax as you exhale. Feeling the relaxation in your chest and shoulders, in your arms and hands. Feeling the muscles relax in your neck and face and head. Feeling your whole body relax with each exhalation.
If thoughts come, let them come, and let them go; gently bring your mind back to “soft” and “belly.”Okay, now slowly, gently, open your eyes and let your attention come back in the room.
How much time should you spend doing this breathing? It depends on how much time feels right to you. Don’t force yourself. Some people say, “You have to do twenty minutes, twice a day.” No. As far as I’m concerned, everybody has different capacities; everybody has different needs. For example, I was really not able to do sitting meditation when I first started meditating, years ago. But I was able to do “expressive” meditations, for example, shaking and dancing.
Here’s how to do it: Stand up with your knees slightly bent and begin to shake from your feet up through your knees, chest, shoulders, and head. Let your whole body go. Do it for five or six minutes. Then stop, relax, and breathe for a couple of minutes. Then let your body move to music that inspires and energizes you for three to five minutes.
This and other expressive meditations, like fast deep breathing and laughing, can also be very effective in releasing tension from the body and allowing us to experience emotions we may have pushed down or denied.
James S. Gordon, MD, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, is internationally recognized for using self-awareness, self-care, and group support to heal population-wide psychological trauma. He is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School, and he was the chairman (under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. He is the author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma.