“If we live as we breathe, take in and let go, we cannot go wrong.”
– Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I recently had one of those days. To be specific, it was one of those pandemic life days. All day I felt on edge, listless, and frustrated. Every request from my children set my teeth on edge. I wanted to relax and yet I wanted to be productive. I was in the mode of comparing my behind the scenes life to everyone else’s highlights reel. No matter how hard I tried, I could not bring myself back to emotional center.
Eventually I exhausted myself both physically and emotionally. After dinner, I felt bleary eyed and drained as my family sat around the table. Not knowing what else to do, I took out a drawing pad and pen. With pen and paper in hand, I began making long rows of flowing lines.
I slowly found my drawing rhythm. After a few minutes I realized that each line was the length of my exhalation. Without meaning to, my system was seeking self-regulation through art and breath-work. Here’s what was happening: I would inhale deeply while lifting the pen off the paper. Then I slowly exhaled through my mouth – while drawing a single line from the top of the page to the bottom. I repeated this visual meditation for the entire paper. In breath, lift pen. Out breath, draw a line. I noticed how my body craved the longer lines of the out breath.
As my entire nervous system began to settle, I noticed my children both picking up art supplies. My five year old began drawing flowing lines on his paper with a marker – emulating my art. My seven year old created his own “feelings” Pokémon character – telling us that his Pokémon drawing had the power to change emotions. It was as if he sensed that the art had shifted my emotions at the table and his Pokémon character had that special power too. Although my husband wasn’t drawing, he was clearly benefitting from a calmer family seated around him!
What struck me was how my own simple drawing and breathing practice became a nonverbal invitation for my children to engage in mindfulness through art. Although I still felt tired from a tough day, I was no longer resisting the feeling of being tired. I felt relaxed and looked forward to the rest of the quiet evening.
Years ago when I was in college, I took a Chinese brush painting class with a well known Chinese artist. He introduced us to the technical aspects of Chinese calligraphy and brush painting. But what stayed with me the longest was his training in breath-work.
Each Chinese character stroke corresponded to an in breath or an out breath. I practiced with rows and rows of the same character each day. My brushstrokes were awkward and sloppy at first, then too controlled. At the end of the sixth week I was still far from expert, however my Chinese characters felt more alive. When looking at them, I could feel the lines breathing with energy. This course proved to be one of my most grounding and soothing courses in college, and not because it was easy. But because the practice was all about visual breathing meditations.
Breath as Energy
I think about breath as energy. The in breath and out breath each possess unique energetic qualities and are tied to the cycles found in nature. From the book Breathe: Simple Techniques for a Calmer, Happier Life by Jean Hall:
“On the exhalation apana is created, a downward – flowing energy, which is responsible for rooting, grounding, and elimination. Again, consider a glass of water that is being emptied. The water flows out from the top of the glass first and then drains through to the bottom with the water line descending. This is the same in the body; as the breath is released on the exhalation, the downward flow can be felt moving and receding from the chest through the belly. The opposing energies that we find in the breath of rise (prana) and fall (apana) create balance and can be found everywhere in nature – such as summer and winter, day and night, space and earth, movement and stillness.”
Honoring the natural ebb and flow of our breathing is a way of staying present with our bodies and experiences in the moment.
Breathing During These Times: Anxiety & Panic
Breathing has become a particular focus during Covid times. Sometimes the focus is fear based: about losing our breath, breathing in the virus, or spreading our germs by breathing out. Wearing a mask when I’m out has brought more attention to my own breathing. I can feel the sensation and temperature of my breath as I exhale, and the fabric of the mask touching my mouth as I inhale.
If we struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, breathing can become a source of worry. Even people who did not struggle with anxiety pre-pandemic may be experiencing anxiety for the first time. And veteran anxiety sufferers may have some tools from past experience, but feel overloaded with the unique anxiety surrounding these pandemic times.
The hyperventilation of a panic attack can make us feel as if we’re not getting enough air into our lungs. We may become hyper-vigilant to our every physical sensation, which can cause our breathing to become shallow and erratic. We may become locked in a vicious cycle where the fear response leads to shallow breathing, which leads to more fear, and back to more shallow breathing.
If you do a search on the internet for breathing exercises, a huge amount of helpful exercises will appear. If you’re struggling with anxiety, specify that in your search. Rather than devoting space to a long list of techniques here, I’d like to focus on just 3 simple exercises that I have personally found helpful for anxiety and panic attacks. I will take them each a step further by suggesting ways to pair art making with them. These are each a variation on the same theme: doing mindful breathing and mark making in tandem. *Note: f you have a history of breathing difficulties or are not sure, always ask your doctor before engaging in specific breathing exercises.
This is probably the fastest and most simple breathing method I have found for quickly shifting from the sympathetic nervous system (an activated nervous system) to the parasympathetic nervous system (for resting, digesting, and relaxation). Quite simply, just make your exhale longer than your inhale. First, breathe in through your nose if possible. Then form a small “O” with your mouth as if you are blowing through a straw. Then breathe out. This often makes a soft whooshing sound. This is an excellent method if you are in the middle of a panic attack or just want to relax your nervous system. After a minute or two of breathing like this, your heart rate should lower and hopefully you will feel a sense of relief beginning to emerge. This breathing method gives your mind and body the message that you are safe and that it’s time to switch off the warning signals that are causing the panic attack.
Longer Exhale With Art: As I illustrated in my example above, make your exhalation visual by making a mark that corresponds to the length of your exhalation. I used pen in the example at the beginning of this post, but you can use any art material you have on hand. Some ideas are colored pencils markers, watercolor brush pens, liquid ink, or oil and chalk pastel. You can also play around with paper size. If you are struggling to slow down your exhalation, begin on a half page of paper. As your out breath lengthens, you can move to a large piece of paper. I drew wavy lines, but you can make any type of mark. Experiment with mark making that feels soothing. Some other ideas are drawing circles, ocean waves, or rolling hills.
As shown in my drawn square diagram, square breathing is another simple and effective strategy. Picture a square in your mind or look at a square in front of you. Then slowly exhale as much air as you can. Next gently inhale through the nose for a count of 4. Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4. Gently exhale through the mouth to the count of 4. At the bottom of the breath pause and hold the breath to the count of 4. Repeat these steps as many times as feels good.
Square Breathing With Art: Print out a page of squares or begin by tracing a group of squares onto a piece of paper. See my example for inspiration. Slowly trace the side of the square as you inhale to the count of 4, (then hold for 4) then slowly trace the next side of the square while you exhale to the count of 4 (then hold for 4). Repeat as many times as you’d like. Then move on to the next square on the page and repeat. You may want to have some fun and switch colors for each square. The finished page will be a record of your deeper breathing as well as a colorful grid of squares. Have fun with the squares if you like and fill them in with designs and doodles after your breathing exercise. Continue to be mindful of your breathing as you draw.
5 Finger Hand Breathing (Also called Take 5)
My 5 year old son taught me this one! And he loves to remind me to use it during tough (emotionally charged) moments. What’s wonderful is that it’s simple enough for a child to do remember the technique. If you have children, teach them this method and then have them remind you when you need to “take 5!”
First, place one hand in front of you or on the ground or surface. Spread your fingers apart. Using the pointer finger of the opposite hand, slowly trace your thumb on the outside and inhale deeply. Then slowly trace your thumb on the inside as you exhale deeply. Repeat this with the rest of your fingers – inhaling as you trace up each finger and exhaling as you trace down each finger. Repeat the process as many times as you like until you feel calmer and more centered.
5 Finger Hand Breathing With Art
This is such a natural breathing exercise to adapt to art. Place your hand on a piece of paper and repeat the steps, using a drawing material (such as a pen, colored pencil, or crayon) to trace each inhale and exhale as you breathe around each finger. Try this with children too! Let them trace your hand as you breathe in and out, or offer to trace their hands as they do the same. You can expand this exercise to fill an entire page with overlapping hands, which can then be colored or painted in.
I hope that these ideas bring comfort and relief to you as you explore them. This is just a taste of ways we can work with our breathing and art making. I look forward to bringing you more ideas. As always, I love to hear from you in the comments! Let me know what you are currently practicing with breathing and the arts. How are you navigating this time in our lives?