How it affects your mood, posture and essentially every aspect of the human body
If you are looking for health and wellness, vitality, increased energy, improved digestion or clarity and peace of mind, it’s essential that we consider how we breathe.
We must cycle our breath to give us life. Without it we have but a few minutes on this earth until we expire. The rate and quality of our breath has a marked impact on our life. It directly relates to energy and vitality, mood, posture, physical strength, stamina and cardiovascular fitness, sleeping and resting patterns as well as our levels of stress, state of mind and consciousness. It literally is at the apex of the totem pole when we are looking at our overall health. Breathing is the part of our being that we must look at initially if we seek to evolve and improve other aspects of our health. If we get our breathing right it allows all other systems to connect and function optimally.
On average we take up to 25,000 breaths per day, each time we take a breath we use certain muscles in our torso to allow air to enter the body and to provide the output of Co2 and other toxins that the body needs to shed. When we breathe effectively, we allow our spine to contract and relax in a natural manner which feeds oxygen, blood and hydration throughout the body. Interestingly, the spine is the most difficult part of our bodies to hydrate, which can be where a lot of aches and typical lower back problems originate. Another major factor towards getting your breathing patterns on track is the effect on our nervous system and stress levels.
When breathing at a slow and efficient rate, The restful branch of our nervous system is activated (parasympathetic) and our body is in a state of homeostasis.
However when we are breathing incorrectly or not mindfully, an entire array of negative responses can begin to process within the body. The response on our nervous system is now in the sympathetic state, the difference between the two can literally be likened between relaxing under a palm tree on a tropical island to being chased through the jungle by a tiger.
The nervous system has two branches. The sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is activated during times of stress or “fight or flight”. This branch has a destructive impact on our bodies, impacting on tissue and breaking down cells. This branch traditionally was activated during times of absolute necessity, i.e. being chased by a lion or defending your tribe’s territory in times of battle. However, due to our high demand lifestyles we can often be sent into a fight or flight response numerous times per day, think of being jolted into the air mid-dream as your alarm goes off in the morning. Fundamental to it all is the way that an individual perceives stress which in turn dictates the nervous system’s response. This response is not always a negative one, it’s also activated when we are working to make our minds and bodies stronger, it simply needs to be balanced out by the opposing branch. This is the parasympathetic branch, and is activated when we are in a restful state. It allows for building and repairing of the body and mind as well as digestion and elimination of foods.
The importance of our nervous system and our reaction to stress can be controlled. The way we breathe impacts directly upon our nervous system and following on from that has numerous effects physically and mentally on our bodies. For example, when we are engaged in a natural breathing pattern we are using our diaphragm and belly, inhaling and exhaling from the nostrils and breathing at a rate of calmness. It encourages our body to remain in this state of calm or rest and enables our body to be functioning in sync with nature. If we are living well; nutritionally, emotionally and physically, it provides the body with normal organ function, mental and spiritual wellness as well the foundation for peak physical health.
To be mindful of correct breathing can be a catalyst for managing stressful situations or better yet, avoiding them all together. It can be extremely helpful in keeping our minds and bodies grounded. Have you ever noticed when you are feeling stressed that your shoulders begin to creep up to the ears? If you did you’ll probably notice too that you are breathing quickly, through the mouth and bringing the breath up high into your ribcage. In this instance your mind is likely to be running in all sorts of directions too. When we are doing this it automatically raises our stress levels and in turn exhausts the body in an unnatural manner. This has numerous other implications such as, tight neck and chest muscles, poor digestion, poor concentration and low energy to name a few. In the long run it can contribute to poor posture and muscle imbalances, poor gut health, poor sleeping patterns as well as fatiguing the adrenals. All of these effects can place the body into a spin of survival only and therefore less time living and thriving in life.
So what can we do?
First, let’s take a look at our own breathing pattern. It’s a good idea to either stand in front of the mirror or lie on your back, this will give us proper awareness as well as naturally lengthen our spine.
Here are some signs of a good breathing pattern to look for:
- Breathing through the nostrils
- Having the feeling of the belly rising when inhaling and falling on the exhale (diaphragmatic breathing)
- Not having the need to think or crave breathes
- Chest and shoulders relaxed
- Having an optimal level of energy
Some signs to look for in a poor breath pattern include;
- The chest predominantly moving during ventilation
- Not seeing the belly move at all
- Mouth breathing
- Tight neck and shoulder muscles
- Poor posture
- Low levels of energy
- Lowered immune systems (from unfiltered air passing through the mouth)
Here are some simple ways to improve our breathing pattern. Ideally performed twice a day, it is a simple routine and all you need is a few minutes:
- Lie on your back or sit up straight.
- Have your left hand on your belly and your right hand on your chest, slightly push down with your right
- As you begin to breathe, watch what is happening with your hands, which one is moving and which remains still?
- What we endeavour to achieve after a short time is to have the left hand rising and falling at a nice and regulated pace and the right hand, on the chest, remains completely still
- Try this for 5 minutes in the morning and evening just before bed. It will greatly improve your sleep patterns
Some recommended disciplines to help our breathing and overall well being also include:
- Pranayama practice – One of the eight stages of Yoga. A discipline that is taught widely in regular yoga classes and often have an entire class dedicated to the practice of breathing
- Meditation / Relaxation techniques – This relaxes the body, calms the mind and brings attention to our breath. Quite often just watching our breath can bring about an optimal pattern
- Alternating nostril breathing – A technique used to bring focus to the mind prior to yoga practice and meditation. Quite simply inhale whilst blocking one nostril with your thumb holding the breath for a second at it’s peak. Place your index finger on the other nostril and proceed to let air out of the opposite nostril only. Breath with the same nostril blocked and repeat.
- Breath enhancement training or free diving – There are professionals teaching surfers how to enhance their breath-holding ability to enable them to be confident and comfortable in big waves especially during times of stress. This technique is applicable in everybody’s life as it teaches us to use our energy more effectively and keep our heart rates at a naturally lower level.
- Strength training – Training your body by lifting weights and stimulating large muscle groups requires optimal breathing and as the body naturally desires to be at equilibrium it will usually assume a nice pattern once cued by demand.
- Last but not least…mindful living – Consciously moving through our days, being aware of how fast we move and taking that little moment to be aware and be a witness to yourself. Our bodies want to be free of pain and we want to be healthy. The body is wise, so listen to what it is telling you. Think of the balanced life that we want for ourselves, Take a nice, long, deep breathe and appreciate the all encompassing impact such regularity can have on our lives.
￼￼￼First published in North Journal