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One blustery winter morning 15 years ago, I was the only person to show up for a yoga class. Instead of canceling, the teacher generously guided me through an entire private lesson. She wove friendliness and self-compassion into the yoga poses themselves, and suggested that as I breathed, I could infuse kindness and encouragement into my breathing itself by silently repeating: “Inhale, my friend; exhale, my friend.” The idea was to notice my breathing consciously in the moment and combine that with referring to myself with tenderness. I noticed that the mantra swiftly dissolved self-evaluation in my yoga practice. It was a revelation.
I took the line and ran with it. There’s so much to love about it. It’s short: literally one breath long. It’s easy. It’s portable! I started beginning my meditation with it each morning and then sprinkling it throughout my day. I said it to myself in the elevator, in the first few breaths upon waking up, or in moments that felt difficult. Now whenever I say it, I sense that I’m building up and replenishing internal reserves of love. The phrase energizes and encourages me. It’s become a sort of container for my inner experience.
You can substitute in other words for “my friend,” such as “my dear,” “my love,” “kiddo,” or even your own name. Whichever you choose, here’s how this deceptively simple phrase can transform the way you treat yourself, and others.
It Honors Friendliness
Calling yourself “my friend” or “my love” provides a framework for relating to yourself with kindness, friendliness, and encouragement. That feeling is spacious enough to recognize that things might be truly hard, even awful. But the phrase helps us access a deep gentleness that doesn’t expect cheerfulness in every moment. As I silently say the words “my friend” or “my love” to myself, I’m reinforcing the kind of relationship I want to have with myself, as well as the kind of self-talk that can cultivate it.
It Brings That Feeling into Your Body
The phrase matches attention to breathing with kind self-talk, which means I feel it in my body instead of just having it swirl around in my mind. I recently listened to a question-and-answer session with the mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. One participant asked, “How do I love myself?” I anticipated that Nhat Hanh’s response would involve the mind rather than the body, but he answered by describing how he greets his body in a loving way when sitting down to meditate: “I have a body. Hello, body.” What gets me is the way he speaks to his body: kindly, patiently, and with deep respect. It’s not rushed. It’s easy to imagine how the caring relationship he cultivates with his body can radiate toward his thoughts, his emotions, and his interactions with other people—and toward loving all of himself.
It Holds You in the Present Moment
A third component of “Inhale, my friend; exhale, my friend” that appeals to me is its emphasis on the present moment: this one, very present breath that is only happening right now. There are so many hardships in this life. Relationships can have thorny misunderstandings or painful strife, or they can end. There’s illness and death. There’s stress from too much work. Sometimes it can seem impossible to imagine how you’re going to cope over the long haul, or even this week, or even today. This sentence invites us to take things just a moment, or breath, at a time, which can seem much more bearable.
It Modulates Your Breath with Gentle Attention
The amount of time it takes to silently say to yourself, “Inhale, my friend” can change the length and quality of your breath itself. When you’re stressed, it’s easy to breathe in a quick and shallow manner, or to even hold your breath. Besides the kindness of the words themselves, the fact that it takes a few seconds to silently articulate them can be an intervention all on its own. People who experience anxiety sometimes report that breathing exercises make them feel more stressed because they struggle to relax their breathing. But the goal of this exercise is to offer kind attention to a single breath without any pressure to change your breathing. If your breathing happens to become slower and more relaxed, that’s just an added benefit.
It Counters Negativity Bias
As humans, our attention is biased toward threats, problems, and negative feelings. It doesn’t mean we’re not handling life well enough. It’s just how our brains evolved: As a mechanism for staying alive, the negativity bias makes us hypersensitive to potential threats in our environment. Although such biased attention might promote physical survival, the habit of focusing on the bad stuff can harm our well-being. The more I practice “Inhale, my friend; exhale, my friend,” the more I strengthen my inner resources. It shifts my attention from external stress to internal coping. I’m grounded. I’m calling upon an inner foundation or sanctuary, and I’m left with a feeling of gladness.
From The Self-Talk Workout: Six Science-Backed Strategies to Dissolve Self-Criticism and Transform the Voice in Your Head, by Rachel Goldsmith Turow © 2022. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
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