As you read the word “mindfulness,” what are the first things that come to mind? Many of us instantly think of meditation and yoga. These are indeed two prominent and beneficial practices to support mindfulness. There are, however, a multitude of ways to live mindfully and develop mindful patterns. With breathing and centering exercises, we can integrate an awareness of the body, heart, mind, and soul to in order to promote holistic health. Subsequently, these practices support our communication, emotional regulation, and relationships as well!
In moments when you’re frustrated or worried, has someone ever said to you, “take a deep breath”? Has this suggestion ever intensified your frustration, causing you to wonder why they would suggest something as cliché and simplistic as a breath to solve a problem? Or, has it come as a welcome reminder to calm and center yourself in an overwhelming situation?
The truth is, there are both physiological and psychological reasons for this suggestion. A deep breath isn’t meant to solve a problem or make a fear disappear. It’s meant to help you come into the present moment and regulate your emotions—on a biological level. Thus, it helps you choose to respond to your situation rather than shift into “fight/flight/freeze” mode, which is the reactionary fear response triggered by the primitive part of our brains. All of this is why breathing exercises are foundational skills for students at Open Sky. In fact, the three-fold breath is one of the first skills that our students learn when they come here.
Here’s how to practice the three-fold breath:
The point of this exercise is to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system by focusing your inhales and intentionally elongating your exhales. The parasympathetic nervous system helps you relax, regulate, and communicate to the mind and body that you are okay. In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system is what causes a fight, flight, or freeze response, all of which are unhelpful for a productive and regulated response to an overwhelming situation. The three-fold breath is a tool we can utilize at any time to center ourselves and regulate our emotions. In this way, it’s like the body’s superpower.
Another mindfulness skill for centering and emotionally regulating is the four-line feelings check, or simply “four-line” as we often call it in the field. This exercise helps us use observation and vocabulary to build awareness around our current emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual experience (see note below on the “spiritual” aspect of this). By building this awareness with focused attention, we are able to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.
At Open Sky, we often refer to the “four rooms” of experience: body, heart, mind, and soul. In her book A House with Four Rooms, author Rumer Godden says it this way: “There is a proverb from India that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, an emotional, a mental and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time. But unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.”
Daily activities at Open Sky help students visit and tend to all four rooms throughout the day. Therapists and field guides may even ask a student, “what room are you in right now?” when that student is displaying intense emotions or reactions (positive or negative). These activities and prompts help students to recognize what aspect of their experience they are dwelling on and then turn their awareness to the rest of their experience.
The four-line is a practice that moves our awareness through each of these four rooms, or four areas of experience. To begin this exercise, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Pause in each room and name what’s happening for you in each one:
It’s as simple as that! I concisely and clearly articulated exactly what I was experiencing internally in the present moment. Notice that I didn’t give any reasons, explanations, or judgments as to what I was noticing in myself. With the four-line feelings check, it’s important to stay present, without overthinking or elaborating on our experience. This exercise is not aimed to tell a story, solve, or explain. It’s simply about centering ourselves, tapping into our present experience, and sitting with it. Sharing our four-line feelings check with others can foster internal and external connection as well. The intentionality and mindfulness of this exercise can help us to navigate conflict and bring us closer together. And at the end, we’ll know ourselves better too.
As you practice the four-line feelings check, do you get stuck with naming your emotions and feelings? When asked how we are feeling, how often do we simply reply, “I’m good,” “I’m bad,” or in the words of a teenage boy, “I’m chillin.” These are ingrained responses for a majority of us. Many of my students at Open Sky don’t have practice naming their emotions. As a culture, we don’t place value on this skill, but with practice, it can strengthen and deepen our relationships.
This is why we provide many students with a feelings resource list or feelings resource wheel. I encourage you to refer to it often as well. You may even want to print one and keep it in your wallet or purse. This can be indispensable when you notice intense emotions or certain physical sensations tied to your emotional or mental state. It also helps for practicing a four-line feelings check. Pull out the resource list and consider how your emotions go beyond “good,” “bad,” “chillin,” and even “happy” or “sad.”
By expanding our feelings vocabulary, we will understand and get to know ourselves better. This supports our health as whole human beings and gives us a clearer path forward when faced with mental and emotional challenges. Maybe you thought you were just feeling “bad,” but more specifically, you’re feeling powerless and disappointed. This insight could help you determine steps to empower yourself. It could also help you fully experience that disappointment instead of brushing it aside or bottling it up. Or maybe instead of “good,” you realize you are feeling hopeful and optimistic. By naming those feelings, you can realize and enjoy what it’s like in the present moment to have hope, or become inspired to act on your optimism.
The three-fold breath, four-line feelings check, and feelings resource wheel are tools to help us become purposefully present. They are ways to incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives by breathing, centering, and drawing awareness to our experience as whole human beings. They lead to emotional regulation, authentic connection, and healthy relationships. I truly believe that the more of us who employ these skills, the better off the world will be.