If you stopped what you’re doing now and paid attention to your breath, how are you breathing? Is your breathing slow and long or quick and shallow? Here yoga teacher Anita Vlajinic Churcher takes us through the biology of how we breathe an introduces us to two different types of breathing exercises we can use in our lives.
Breath is life! It is our major source of nourishment. We can live without food for three weeks, without water for three days but only three minutes without breath. And yet we hardly ever think about it. However, when we do, breath has the power to heal our body and to transform our mind. Breath is the starting point of any bodywork. It’s a wonderful intermediary between body and mind. When we want to calm our minds and focus on our bodies, breath is the vehicle that connects the two. As we start shifting our attention to the breath we start to notice the change in our body. The reason for that is that the respiratory system is closely connected to the nervous system, so
the way we breathe will influence our mind and our mood, which will then reflect in our body. Additionally, the nervous system is connected to the immune system, so the way we breathe can really impact upon overall wellbeing.
Take a deep breath.
How does that happen on a physical level? In our lungs we have little receptors called baroreceptors, which measure the pressure and send the information to the brain. Different levels of pressure provide specific information to the brain about our state of safety or threat.
Breathing into lower parts of the lungs does not place lots of pressure on the lungs as they expand downward and the air has a lot of room to expand. Baroreceptors feed this low-pressure gradient back to the brain and the brain reads this message as a state of calm and safety. This kind of relaxation response in the body is called parasympathetic arousal.
On the other hand, an increased pressure gradient means either that we are exercising or are under threat. So when we breathe in upper parts of the lungs (the chest) the air doesn’t have so much space to expand because of the pressure from our ribcage. The baroreceptors read this pressure as high and that kind of information to the brain means that we are under a threat. When we are exercising or have important job interview this kind of response is natural, but if we are breathing like that most of the time we are constantly in the state of sympathetic arousal, which means increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and after a prolonged periods of time this can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. So bringing the breath into the lower lungs, or as we commonly call it “breathing into the belly,” can indeed change our mood and make us more relaxed, grounded and connected. Choppy, shallow, irregular and chesty breath is a sign of stress and anxiety and could be regulated by breath awareness. Sometimes we only need to take a few deep, abdominal breaths to begin to calm down.
Probably the most beneficial and easiest breathing practice in these stressful, fast paced times is simple abdominal breathing, which is only called that because it seems like we are breathing into our belly but in reality we don’t have lungs in our bellies. We are actually breathing in the lower parts of the lungs: the diaphragm contracts and consequently the abdomen expands.
There is a phenomenon called reverse breathing. Many people pull their abdomen in when they inhale and expand the chest and when they
exhale they relax the abdomen and the chest. This is often a consequence of constant tightening of the abdomen as we try to “hold it in”. Somehow in the context of the modern culture we forgot how to breathe naturally and assume that this type of reverse breathing serves us. This is actually problematic as the pressure gradient is unnecessarily tense and it limits the air exchange in our lungs. Surprisingly many of us need to re-educate our bodies back to the natural way of breathing You can practice abdominal breathing anywhere, but the most effective way is to lie down, as that’s when our bodies are naturally most relaxed.
You can place your hands on the abdomen and on inhaling allow the belly to expand in a natural way and on exhaling allow it to fall. Attempt to prolong your exhalation slightly as this augments the relaxation response. Simply breathe through the nose and follow the movement of the abdomen. You don’t need to alter your breath in any way. Just natural, conscious breathing into the abdomen will soon start to calm the nervous system and you will begin to feel relaxed.
You can do this sitting on the chair or on the floor with the back straight, your hands either on your abdomen or in a relaxed position. Or you can do this standing up and at any time. With conscious practice ideally this process eventually becomes instinctive. Simple, conscious breathing reconnects our mind to the body and enables relaxation. This process helps us return to our core so we can connect with our inner wisdom and peace.
On the other hand sometimes we feel a little bit lethargic and low in energy. The Breath of Joy is a warming and energizing yoga breathing practice. It uses rhythmic body motion, coordinating arm movements with breath, in order to facilitate deep breathing. The motion of
the arms helps to fill all areas of the lungs (lower, middle and upper) with fresh oxygen. This practice may not be appropriate for everyone. Skip it if you have high blood pressure or if you suffer from any kind of head or eye injury, like migraines or glaucoma. If you start to feel light-headed, instead of light-hearted, stop for a minute and just breathe normally.
To practice Breath of Joy, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel, knees slightly bent.
You need to inhale in three parts.
1. Inhale one-third of your lung capacity and swing your arms up in front of your body, bringing them parallel to each other at shoulder level, with palms facing the ceiling.
2. Continue inhaling to two-thirds capacity and stretch your arms out to the side like wings to shoulder level.
3. Inhale to full capacity and swing your arms parallel and over your head, palms facing each other.
4. Open your mouth and exhale completely with an audible “Ha!”, bending the knees more deeply as you sink into a standing squat and swing your arms down and back behind you like a diver. Repeat up to nine times. Don’t force or strain the body or breath; simply be absorbed by the peacefully stimulating rhythm. Return to standing. Close your eyes and experience the effects. Notice how quickly your heart beats, feel the sensations in your face and arms, tingling in the palms of your hands and notice the smile on your face.
In yogic tradition, breath is called prana (life force) and by reconnecting with our breath we directly tap into our energy system and our guiding force. During inhalation we absorb energy and during exhalation we expel the unwanted residue. In the Buddhist tradition breath is used to focus the mind to calm and ground the spirit. Meditating on a breath is way to understand the nature of reality. Breath is a moving object and has the characteristic of impermanence, moment by moment, breath by breath. Breath beings and ends. Nothing is permanent: pain is not permanent nor is pleasure.
We all breathe so we are all connected by breath, which connects us to the world, even if we feel disconnected in every other way. Ultimately, breath is ever present and always available to balance, reconnect, ground and revitalise.