Both adults and kids can benefit from identifying with a particular animal who characterizes the breathing trait they’re working on.
A “totem animal” is an animal spirit whom you call upon or invoke for its special powers and survival skills, to serve as a guardian or protector when facing adversity.
From the hibernating bear to the deep-diving whale, we can use imagery from the animal kingdom to help us enjoyably and simply learn to breathe better. The most important breathing skills for stressed-out, often breathless humans today are modeled by animals — light, imperceptible, quiet breathing, or good breath control when it’s useful.
Which of these animals do you resonate with?
–Bears hibernate in winter to conserve energy and stay alive while food is scarce. Their systems slow so they don’t need much energy. They even stop peeing and pooping. As their need for oxygen drops, they breathe less than usual. Their heart and respiration rates slow markedly, and they start breathing extremely lightly. Other animals that may hibernate when resources become limited are bats and squirrels.
–Prey animals fade into the environment and breathe imperceptibly too — without moving or making a sound — when a predator is around. This category includes rodents, lizards and horses.
–Whales and dolphins are sea dwellers in a category called marine mammals, who breathe air into lungs just like we do! They can’t breathe underwater like fish, and they don’t have gills. They breathe through a nostril, called a blowhole, located right on top of their heads. They are models for long breath-hold times! (How long a modern healthy person should be able to hold their breath comfortably is a topic of debate. It used to be pegged at 60 seconds minimum, but in recent years as people have typically become more or less sedentary, 40 seconds seems to be considered the current “normal”.) A sperm whale can spend about 90 minutes hunting underwater before it has to come back to the surface to breathe air. Dolphins are able to hold their breath for several minutes but typically they breathe about four or five times per minute. (When they get tired, they sleep while floating on the ocean’s surface.)
–Giraffes with their long necks can be totem animals for those who want to be inspired to have better posture.
–Tortoises are good role models overall because they breathe slowly. They also move in a very steady, leisurely manner that some Type As might benefit from emulating. Remember the story of The Tortoise And The Hare? The tortoise wins the race by cunning while the hare fails because he overestimates himself and takes a nap during the race. The moral of the story is “slow and steady wins the race”. This is also true with breathing retraining as we seek to change our breathing pattern that averages 20,000 breaths per day. It doesn’t happen overnight. We have to become aware of our personal patterns over time as we catch ourselves typically reacting to stress with breathing and other habits that aren’t healthy.
My personal totem animal is the dog, not for any particular breathing skill but for their ability to forget others’ transgressions and let disagreements and disappointments slide off their backs. I need to relax more, and that leads me to breathe well.