We all breathe – our life depends on it. So what is the point of learning breathing techniques? The obvious comparison is with nutrition. We all eat and drink to survive. However, as we know, there seem to be an incredible number of ways that we can get nutrition profoundly wrong, leading to malnutrition at one end of the scale and obesity at the other.
Parasympathetic nervous system
The more that’s discovered about breathing, the more science is uncovering how significantly breathing impacts physical and mental health. Two systems work in harmony in our bodies: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system is comparable to the accelerator in a car and is closely linked to the inhalation part of our breathing cycle. Inhalation brings energy and excitement into the body and mind. It is the kick-starter for adrenaline, an increased heart beat, the fight or flight response and our survival instinct. By contrast, breathing out, or exhalation, is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our system that slows us down, equating to the breaking system in the car analogy. The hormones that exhalation stimulates are oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine. Slow, conscious, controlled exhalations are by their very nature calming and trigger relaxation.
Calming the exhalation
When breathing becomes shallow or quick and stops in the chest rather sinking into the belly, then the impact on physical and mental health can be significant. Our body relies on relaxation to help us get to sleep at night and to move into a state of rest and repair. Anybody suffering with anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks or stress will benefit by focusing on slowing, calming and controlling the exhalation phase of breathing. It’s the controlled, long, slow exhalation that brings major health benefits.
In a heightened state of awareness, the body and mind are poised for fight or flight. Blood flow is increased to the parts of our brain that are scanning for danger, particularly vision and hearing. The focus of the brain is outwards with the eyes and ears receiving an increased blood supply. In this state of vigilance, other internal systems are down-shifted. Little, if any, energy being spent in particular on our immune system. Whilst we focus on outside threats our internal health functions go on a back burner.
Anxiety and health
In the short term anxiety doesn’t pose a threat to overall health. It’s part of the natural ebb and flow, the balance that our body is constantly fine-tuning. But in the longer term, reducing the emphasis we place on our internal rest and restore systems will undermine general health.
If health is important to you, learning how to relax has to be a priority. Breathing techniques are the gateway to unlocking relaxation and supporting long term health. If we spend a lot of time in a state of anxiety and stress, then the long-term repercussions is that our physical health suffers.
Thoughts trigger emotions
The human body is amazingly complex. Thoughts trigger a domino effect of intertwined emotions and physical reactions. Worry and anxiety can launch a raft of physical responses in the form of digestive complaints, headaches and heart tension to name a few. Stress is a major contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the world. There’s no doubt about it: worry is not good for health.
Taking a pause from worrying, and thought in general, eases tension in the body. By focusing on the breath and nothing else, you will be setting aside stressful thoughts about whatever is on your mind: your boss, your overdraft, your credit card limit, your noisy neighbour, your elderly relative and all the other thoughts that bring stress day to day.
Taking time to focus on breathing
So where’s the best place to start with breathing techniques? If you only do one thing, then this is a good place to start: just consciously focus on your breathing for a couple of minutes whenever you have a moment. There’s no set amount of time that you need to aim for. A good way of thinking about it is whenever you have a few minutes to yourself. For instance, you could be at traffic lights or in the queue at the supermarket. Whenever you’re waiting for a meeting or just have a few minutes to spare. These natural pauses in the day provide perfect opportunities to relax and bring awareness to your breathing and physical self.
Initially it’s not essential to change the natural rhythm of your breathing. You don’t need to try to make it deeper or extend the inhalation or exhalation. Simply sit, lie or stand. Just be wherever you happen to be and observe the breath as it flows naturally in and out.This simple practice of observation, watching your breath flowing in and out will create space for some amazing health benefits.
First and foremost, observing breathing will temporarily ease the mental chatter that we carry with us everywhere we go. You know the thoughts: wondering what you’re having for dinner, running through your mental shopping list, tallying off the bills that need to be paid, running through weekend plans. We all have our go-to list of worries and concerns as well as the things that we are planning for the future. Simply focusing on your breathing will provide an escape from our familiar thought cycles even if it’s just for a few minutes. It’s this pause that provides a unique opportunity for your brain to switch from its habitual patterns and find some relaxation.
It’s well documented that our brain clings to habits. We have thinking grooves that we fall into hour after hour, day after day. Very often these are worry based. Anything you can do to get your brain, your thinking and your thoughts out of these well worn patterns is beneficial.
In order to take breathing exercises to the next phase, extending the inhalation and exhalation is the next step in the process. When you slow down your breathing you’re slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure and creating a knock on effect of relaxation for your body. In addition to slowing the breathing, it’s key to work on bringing the breathing lower down into the belly rather than keeping it restricted in the chest. When you think about deep breathing, aim to bring the inhalation lower down the body.
The modern world encourages us to spend most of our time living in our heads and largely ignoring the rest of our body. Specifically, we pay a huge amount of time looking out at the world around us focusing on the external. Think of the time that is spent staring at computer monitors and phone screens or watching television. It’s normal to focus on the external and almost never think about ourselves, our bodies or our thoughts in any way at all.
Most of us centre our awareness of ourselves in our heads, our eyes and possibly as far as our arms and shoulders. The rest of the body serves to get us from place to place, but we barely acknowledge it for most of the time. Frequently, it’s only poor health that brings our attention to other parts of the body. And not necessarily just a major health concern. Even a blister can force us to think about our feet rather than taking them for granted. A stomach upset brings our digestive system into sharp focus.
Learning to relax
Working on a breathing practice is two-fold in its benefits. Firstly, it puts a stop to the hamster-wheel of thinking without end. Secondly it brings focus and attention to parts of the body that largely go completely unnoticed. Even a few minutes a day of focusing attention on the breath and body will initiate the feelings of relaxation that contribute to physical and mental well-being.
Breathing and sleep
One of the most productive times to work on breathing exercises is just before going to sleep. Insomnia is commonly attributed to stressful thoughts from the day that are hard to shake off when we try to sleep. To facilitate a better night’s sleep, this is an ideal moment to learn to break out from the cycle of thoughts that are going on in our head. Our mind is like an always-on movie screen. It’s permanent show-time, running the movie about whatever our thoughts are focusing on. Stepping away from these images and thoughts just before we are about to sleep gets us out of this cycle. Focusing on breathing for a few minutes will create a natural break between daytime concerns and finding the space the body needs to relax and unwind for a good night’s sleep.
In her book ‘How to Own the Room’, Viv Groksop’s mentions a technique where you imagine your nostrils on the soles of your feet. This is a creative way of addressing the issue that we ignore the whole of our body most of the time. Try it for a moment now. Imagine that your nostrils are on the bottom of your feet and take a few breaths in and out. This simple, creative way of visualising your body enables you to perceive it as one cohesive unit.Your feet, legs and body come into unity for a brief moment.
Make the shift in awareness
There are unlimited resources available to learn more about the benefits of breathing technique. There’s a whole book by Ed Harrold called ‘Life with Breath’. Equally, there are apps that teach a whole range of breathing exercises. If you attend a yoga class, you will be learning how to focus on your inhalation and exhalation. But, one thing to keep in mind is that the resources aren’t essential. What’s crucial is focusing some attention every day on inhalation and exhalation as a first step. This simple shift in awareness is accompanied by profoundly beneficial physical changes. It’s a way to access increased levels harmony between body and mind, to understand your body and to appreciate and enhance physical health and well-being.