One might think that something as innate as breathing would be something we all naturally do well, yet it in my own experience and from observing others, as much as of course we breathe, many of us, most of the time, do not breathe optimally. One could be forgiven for thinking I’m stating the obvious here, but breathing is really important! Not just in as much that if we stop breathing, we cease to exist.
The way we breathe has a much more profound effect than it’s seemingly functional fulfilment as a life-preserving exchange of air unconsciously and repeatedly flowing in and out.
It is the way we breathe, rather than the fact that we do breathe, that really matters. One way to test what breathing style you generally favour is by placing one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen. Take two normal breaths in and out and observe which hand moves more. In most cases, unless one has done yoga, or some other practice that focuses one’s attention on one’s breath, most people find that it is the hand on the chest that moves more, where the shoulders, rather than the diaphragm move. Moreover when one is stressed, one’s breathing pattern is characterised by short, shallow and rapid chest breathing,
To counter this, research has shown that timetabling periods of deeper abdominal breathing throughout the day can actually revolutionise the body’s functioning. When one breathes more deeply and slowly, the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated. This is the system, which tends to be the more dormant of the two nervous systems, the other being the sympathetic nervous system. A great way to remember which nervous system is responsible for what nervous response it to associate the ‘p’ from parasympathetic with peace and the sympathetic with stress.
Much has been written about the quasi-meditative effect of deep breathing, with one of the more renowned researchers, Harvard physician Herbert Benson, coining the term the ‘relaxation response’ way back in the heady and hippy days of 1975. He found that intentional deep abdominal breathing ushers the body into a physical state of deep rest, altering the physical and emotional responses to stress, countering the body’s fight or flight response. The heartening news is that according to Benson, it only takes around 20 deep breaths per day, equating to around 15 minutes, to induce this state. Doing this, potentially damaging stress signals are disabled, and one’s immune system is empowered to work at its optimal best.
Breathing from the abdomen can initially feel counter-intuitive, as when one breathes in, the abdomen goes out, and when one breathes out, the abdomen goes in. It actually takes some practice, not only from a physical perspective, but from a mental one, with a conscious commitment to shift awareness to one’s breath at certain times of the day. Encouragingly, this does not have to happen in the idyllic setting of zero stress or total peace or quiet; I have even found that mindful or intentional breathing can be incorporated whilst walking. As I pace, I breathe in for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5 and exhale for a count of 5, repeating the process until my body actually start to feel its benefits. I often observe that as I begin this practice, my walking pace is fast and furious, but after a few breaths I begin to regain control, gradually reigning in slower, calmer steps which in turn translates to a calmer, less racing mind. It is incredibly invigorating, and such an easy concept to ritualise into one’s daily routine. Of course the idea of doing this breathing whilst lying down with one’s eyes closed is a real treat, reaping rewards akin to a ‘power’ or ‘nana’ nap.
Why we are not taught how to breathe is indeed a mystery to me. So much time and energy is devoted to other, more complex and costly things, aimed at improving wellbeing; yet the one thing that it is freely and readily available to us all the time, is our breath. Maybe that is part of the problem: it’s just too easy; it’s right under our noses (and within!). We always look for more complex answers to the things that just seem too good to be true. In Hebrew, the word ‘to breathe’ comes from the same root as the word for soul, and I can see why. When we connect to our breath, we connect to our true self, to our inner spirit, to our soul.
So why don’t you ‘take a breather’ now. You’ll definitely feel better for it.
In love and laughter,