Our breath is the energy which gives and sustains our life (thank you trees) – so it’s fair to say that it is vital to our well-being. But what else about this life force that’s with us from birth?
Breathing (respiration) is looked after by our autonomic nervous system (ANS), so luckily for us, is something that is done automatically from the moment we are born.
Given that inhaling provides the body, organs and cells with vital oxygen and exhaling detoxifies the body (70% of the body’s detoxification is done as we exhale carbon dioxide), it seems obvious to state that respiration is fundamental to our being. Most of us can’t survive for very long if breathing is restricted – you may have experienced swimming underwater for some time ending in coming to the surface gasping for air!?
And because it’s done involuntarily without any effort on our part (unlike eating for example which is a deliberate act), we often forget that it is happening 24/7 and in doing so may have forgotten the incredible power the breath has. Imagine if we were responsible for each breath…pretty hard, maybe impossible, even just for 5 minutes!?
Breath and Physiology:
The quality of our breath affects everything in our body and mind. The ANS, which is responsible for our breathing, is composed of 2 branches – the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems which both regulate vital functions. When our breathing is short and rapid, the body automatically assumes we are stressed - the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, we experience our muscles tighten, an increased heart rate, acceleration of breathing and stress hormones are released in preparation for fight or flight. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand counterbalances and calms the system to return to its normal resting state (dropping the heart rate and blood pressure). Slowing down and steadying the breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system, by slowing down the heart rate our bodies become calm reducing feelings of stress. When we use the breath mindfully, we can support the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, ensuring healthy physiological responses.
Breath and Mind:
The breath also has the power to calm the mind. Most of the time our minds wander –whether replaying past memories, pushing away difficult experiences, longing for a better situation or chasing stuff like. This is completely normal. By slowing down and intentionally but gently paying attention to the breath, we’re not thinking about other things. The attention will drift away from the breathing and return things concerning us but training ourselves to go back to it over and over. This refocusing has a relaxing effect and helps to interrupt ruminative thinking or negative or worrying thoughts which may be looping. In this context the breath offers a simple, consistent, and accessible tool to practice with.
Breathe with your Belly:
You may have observed a baby breathing and noticed that the entirety of its body moves with each breath. Given babies are not lost in their thinking mind, they fully breathe – notice their little belly expanding and filling up with air on the inhale and on the exhale, the gentle contraction of the belly. Fully inhaling, fully exhaling. Give it a try next time you have a few minutes….***
Place one hand on your lower belly and take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Sense your abdomen expanding as you inhale. As you exhale, blow out through your mouth and feel your stomach contracting, then release. Repeat this for three to five minutes to revitalize your body. Notice the difference you feel and the subtle sensations in the body. It’s okay if you get distracted, whenever you notice your mind has been pulled away, kindly guide your focus back to the belly area.
***consult your physician or GP before attempting breathing exercises.