The Miraculous Sigh
Meditation involves two skills. The first is physical: learning to relax rapidly. The second is cognitive: learning to pay attention. It does take a certain amount of time, about ten to twenty seconds, to significantly relax, but we can and do become mindful in an instant when we need to. It’s possible to combine relaxation and attention into a powerful short exercise that you could easily do many times a day.
Some people think of relaxation as a state close to sleep. I’d like to propose a more sophisticated definition. We are “relaxed” when we have the optimal baseline levels of muscle tone, arousal, and attention for whatever we happen to be doing. Conversely, we are “tense,” “anxious,” or “stressed” when our muscle activity and arousal are higher than necessary.
The baseline changes continuously as we shift from one activity to another. Walking requires more lower-body tone and higher arousal than sitting. Talking requires more muscle tone in the face than being silent, but every activity will have an optimal baseline. When we’re at the baseline, we feel relaxed, in control, well-paced, and mentally online.
If we check (and know what to look for), we will usually find we are a little, or a lot, more tense than we need to be for much of the day. To “relax,” therefore, means dropping back to the optimal baseline for that activity. Once you know how, it rarely takes more than a minute to do this, but the benefits can be colossal. If we don’t, we will mindlessly maintain those levels of excess tension and energy expenditure, and we usually crank them up further as the day goes by.
Relaxing quickly also has a huge cognitive payoff. If we’re physically tense, our minds scatter and become too speedy to function well. If we’re relaxed, however, we can give good, self-monitoring, economical attention to whatever we are doing. We will also be able to turn the quality of our attention up or down as required. We will know when to be extra sharp and focused and when we can safely cruise on “high-functioning automatic.”
We really can become mindful in an instant, but sustained, good-quality attention depends on being close to the optimal baseline for much of the day. That’s where we have to start. So how can we relax rapidly when we’re habitually out of whack? We can use the breath to do it, but there are some technical details to expand on that.
Sympathetic arousal is a state of elevated blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and secretions of adrenaline and cortisol. This arousal increases the rate at which we burn energy, and it makes us feel speedy. The only part of this autonomic nervous system network that we can control directly is the breath. Fortunately, if we consciously relax our breathing, that relaxation simultaneously slows down all the other aspects of arousal.
Here is a curious little fact: When we breathe in, our blood pressure and heart rate go up. When we breathe out, they go down. They go up and down over a single breath! This explains why, when we habitually hold the breath in (as we do when we’re tense), arousal remains high. Conversely, when we let the breath go, as we do when we sigh or yawn, we relax.
The following are markers of tense breathing and high arousal: short, frequent breaths; longer in-breaths than out-breaths; breathing from the chest rather than lower down in the body; and holding on at the top of the in-breath. Conversely, the markers of relaxed breathing are these: longer, slower breaths; longer out-breaths than in-breaths; breathing from lower in the body; and usually (but not always) a space at the end of the out-breath. Once you can recognize these markers, it is easy to check. Just ask yourself at any time: “Do I seem to be holding on to the breath or letting it go?”
The fastest way to unlock your breathing is to sigh, but you need to do it well. So what makes a good sigh? We should think of a sigh as having three parts: in-breath, out-breath, and the pause at the end. If there’s no pause, it’s just a deep breath, not a sigh. Deep breaths are good, but sighs are so much more relaxing.
To get the hang of this, I suggest that you try doing an exercise I call “Three Sighs,” and do it many times a day. Until you have more experience, one sigh usually isn’t enough to break through the locked muscle tension and reset your level of arousal.
The exercise goes like this. You sigh three times. The first big in-breath unlocks the tight chest. You then let the breath go without forcing it, and wait in the space at the end until you really need to breathe in again.
On the second sigh, it is good to have a fake yawn, and don’t be surprised if this triggers a real one. A yawn slows down the breathing considerably by lengthening the out-breath. Don’t forget to wait at the bottom of the out-breath for as long as is comfortable. This waiting really stretches the out-breath. On the third sigh, focus on releasing the breath completely and waiting at the end, until the next breath comes of its own accord. This whole process should take about thirty or forty seconds.
The meditation is now over. When you go back to natural, uncontrolled breathing you will find it has utterly changed. Your breathing will have shifted from tight, holding, chesty breathing, to looser, releasing, lower-body breathing. Your breaths will also be slower and longer, which is a clear marker of lower arousal, and your whole body will feel more relaxed.
It sounds easy, but without repetition and practice you won’t get a great deal out of it. We don’t break habitual levels of arousal that easily. They tend to rebound fairly quickly unless you repeatedly reset them. I suggest to my students that they try to do the “three sighs” at least ten times a day.
When you are experienced in doing three sighs, you will find that even a single sigh (ideally a yawn) can have a remarkable effect. You sigh, stop, reset your level of arousal, and get ready. A big conscious yawn will also drop you into a few seconds of physical stillness and mental silence at the very end of the out-breath. These moments of silence and embodiment can be pivot points in your day. They enable you to feel calm, focused, centered, and in control. When you move into action, you can do so when you’re ready, in your own time.