Using the Body and Breath to Get Out of Your Head


We often practice mindfulness in stillness. Here, Cara Bradley shares how mindful movement and breath awareness can help us shift away from stress.

Welcome to the first article in a new series from Cara Bradley where she will explore how we can use our breath and body to cultivate “mental fitness,” clarity, and calm. 

Do you ever feel like a brain on a stick? You know that sensation of being stuck in your head, disconnected from what is happening below the neck? It’s not a comfortable or productive way to live, yet, it’s all too common. In this new series, we are going to take a journey below the neck and explore how paying attention to our body state can help us change our mental state. By refining our awareness of inner body signals, we’ll become more skilled at adjusting how we feel emotionally and mentally—sometimes in a matter of minutes. 

Over the course of this series, we will cover body-based practices and protocols to: 

1. Make quick mental-state shifts for when we need an on-the-spot solution.

2. Train our body and mind to feel stronger, calmer, and clearer for longer. 

We’ll do this with  tools and practices for well-being that I call Mini-Wins and Cross-Training. This will help us get mentally fit. 

What is Mental Fitness?  

Mental Fitness is the capacity of the body and mind to work together to increase our physical energy, emotional stability, and mental clarity and calm. The feeling of being mentally fit is one of lightness, harmony, of being in sync. It’s that sense of being awake, alive, and connected with life—and who doesn’t want more of that? 

A good place to start is with one of the most effective tools for shifting our physical, mental, and emotional states: the breath.  

According to Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and author of The Healing Power of the Breath, “every emotion is accompanied by a different breath pattern.” It’s possible to change how you feel and even how your mind is working by slowing down to a gentle pattern of four to six breaths per minute.  

Coherent breathing brings our autonomic nervous system into a balanced, calm state and has the same effect on our mind. Dr. Gerbarg writes that this practice “has a calming effect on the emotions while enhancing attention, clarity, and mental focus.” Working the breath in a deep, balanced pattern has been shown to synchronize or harmonize body and mind, thus lifting our mood and performance. 

Try this quick Mini-Win state shifter called Coherent or Resonant Breathing. It’s an especially effective practice when you’re feeling agitated or you catch yourself acting like a brain on a stick.  

Mini-Win Breathing Practice: 

  1. Focus your attention on your breath.  
  2. Inhale and slowly count for four to six seconds.  
  3. Exhale and slowly count for four to six seconds.  
  4. Do this five times. 

When you feel frenzied or frantic, pause and remember that by dropping your attention below the neck and tuning into your body more often, you’ll learn to read your inner body signals sort of like you read a book.  This can help you learn to understand the messages of what’s needed or not needed to feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. In future articles, we’ll explore movement, rhythm, stillness, and silence to help you feel more strong, calm, and clear even on busy days. 

Here’s a series of simple postures and movements you can use as part of a sitting meditation session—or anytime.
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