Breath: It’s What Your Body Needs

by Emma Strempfer '24 on November 9, 2023

Editor's Column

During my sophomore year, I took my DWC colloquium. It was a course that changed my life— both academically and personally. 

The course was called Democracy in America and was taught by Dr. Raymond Hain from the Humanities Department and Dr. Patrick Breen from the History Department. It was a semester-long analysis of Alexis De Toqueville’s famous, and in my opinion flawless, description of American government and culture in his book, Democracy in America

Someday I will likely write more on this class because I learned so much. I truly do not say this lightly— the course changed the trajectory of my life. For the better? Let’s hope so. 

However fondly I look back on the course now, it caused a lot of anxiety for me. The readings were long and dense, students were required to participate five times in each class, and one of the times we spoke it had to be in disagreement with a classmate or the professors. Looking back, it was a great challenge that helped not just me but everyone grow as readers and thinkers. But at the time it was the last thing I wanted to do. 

It was also halfway through that spring semester that the mask mandate was lifted. While I was so happy to breathe freely in the classroom, that layer of protection between me and the rest of the class was being stripped away. 

All of this is to say that the course was a big stressor for me, and I really couldn’t come up with any way to overcome it for quite some time. I did the readings thoroughly, got a head start on the papers, came to class early, and went to office hours. None of my efforts eased the impending doom I felt on the twice-a-week walk to class. 

Then, I realized one flaw in the way that I approached the class on that walk. I was holding my breath— actually holding my breath. Not only that, I would find myself frequently sitting in class not breathing. 

So, I set out to rectify this problem. In the morning before class, I would practice deep breathing. Very slow and controlled, I would fill my lungs with air until capacity, hold for a few seconds, and then exhale as slowly as possible. I would do this on my way to class, during class, and after class. Doing this provided me with two things: in the physical sense, it provided my blood and brain with oxygen to think clearly. In another sense, it gave me something small to focus on and to distance myself from my nervousness. 

Focusing on breath was a huge help. It felt as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was a stronger student because of it. Scratch that— a stronger person. 

The list of things I learned from the Tocqueville class is profoundly long. Appreciation for breath and understanding how to practice deep breathing is just one of them. 

When I am overwhelmed, when I am sad, when I am grateful, before I pray, I breathe deeply. 

There are loads of different breathing patterns, like belly breathing, humming breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and equal breathing. The pattern that works best for me requires increasing the length of each inhale and exhale over a few minutes. Beginning with just four seconds in and out, I aim to slow my breathing to the point where I can count ten seconds on the inhale and ten seconds on the exhale. 

Unless you are talking or exercising vigorously you can breathe deeply just about anywhere. So, if you’d like, take the time right now, put down the paper, sit back, and inhale slowly. 1…2…3…4…