Are you breathing consciously? Sounds like a strange concept, but there are tons of benefits to be had by being breath-aware…
The air you breathe…
For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth. Sanskrit proverb
Breathing, it’s the first and last thing we do in this life. And we breathe, on average, between 20,000 and 25,000 times a day. It’s what connects our mind and body, and how we breathe can have an enormous effect on our physical, emotional, and mental state. But how conscious of your breathing are you?
Without breath you cannot survive, for breathing is the process by which oxygen is delivered into all the organs and cells in your body and carbon dioxide is expelled. Did you know your brain needs three times more oxygen than the rest of your organs to function properly?
Breathing itself is part of your body’s autonomic nervous system. That is the part of the nervous system that controls the unconscious bodily functions, i.e., those that are largely independent of thought, and makes automatic adjustments between activity and rest.
The autonomic nervous system comprises two parts; the sympathetic and parasympathetic, which have opposite functions. The sympathetic system prepares your body for action whilst the parasympathetic system prepares your body for rest.
However, breathing is the only autonomous bodily function that you can control, if you choose to.
The mind-body-spirit connection
The mind, it is said, is the king of the senses, but breath is the king of the mind and when you control your breath you can control both your mind and emotions.
We’ve all had moments, especially when we feel stressed or anxious, when our breathing becomes shallow, quick or rapid. Have you noticed that when you focus on your breathing and simply breathe how you begin to feel calmer and more relaxed?
The quality and quantity of your breath and the way it flows through your body can either enhance or inhibit your wellbeing.
Where do you breathe?
Obviously, we all breathe in and out through our noses and mouths. But do you know where in the body you breathe?
Take five minutes and just sit and focus on your breathing.
- Where do you breathe?
- Do you breathe in through your mouth or nose?
- How long is the ‘in’ and ‘out’ breath?
- Do you breathe fast or slow?
- How long do you pause after an ‘out’ breath before taking an ‘in’ breath?
- What’s your breath like at different times during the day?
- How does your breathing change when your feelings and emotions change?
All these help you discover your own personal breathing rhythm.
In general, because many of us breathe unconsciously, as a consequence we tend to breathe in a shallow manner up in the chest area of our bodies. This lack of awareness means we are using only the very top of our lungs to breathe, potentially depriving our bodies of five times the oxygen we could be getting.
This lack of breath awareness can inhibit your wellbeing in the following ways, without you even realizing it:
- Less energy – as you are breathing in less oxygen, there is less oxygen reaching your organs and cells. So, your cells prioritize survival over development
- Unbalanced nervous system – because the breath helps maintain balance in your body, poor breathing habits can result in tension and much higher levels of stress
- Tight airways – means your body has to work harder and breathe faster to compensate
- Constricted blood vessels – forces the heart to work harder and can also lead to high blood pressure
But what can you do about it?
The secret to good breathing is awareness, and when you use the breath consciously you support both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
By directing your awareness to your breathing and developing beneficial breathing habits you can also improve your respiratory function, help reduce stress, restore your energy and your overall wellbeing.
Changing your breathing habits isn’t difficult and the best bit is you don’t have to do anything extra, it’s just you and your respiratory system.
In fact, all you have to remember is to breathe in through your nose, not your mouth!
The confusing bit is how to exhale – some say through your nose, some through the mouth. Personally, I’ve always used the in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth, as that way you can expel more air. But why not try both ways and see which works best for you?
Simple deep breathing exercise
- Get comfortable – you can lie down, sit down or stand, the main thing is you have to feel comfortable
- Breathe in through your nose – slowly to count of four, and breathe deeply into your body until your tummy expands
- Hold the breath for a count of four
- Breathe out slowly through the mouth to a count of eight
Try this simple exercise ten times, three times a day over the next week and let me know in the comments how you get on.
The mechanics of good breathing
Even when you’re not doing the above exercise, to make the most out of your 20-odd thousand breaths a day, try and stick to the following “rules”:
Breathe through the nose
Breathing through your nose instead of your mouth is kinder to your lungs as the air is more filtered.
If, when you start, it feels too difficult to breathe through your nose, this is probably because you’ve been breathing through your mouth for so long that the nasal passages have tightened up.
Bear with it, it should only be a couple of days before you notice it getting easier to breathe through your nose.
Breathe into the belly, using the diaphragm
Use your diaphragm (the umbrella-shaped muscle underneath your rib cage) to deepen your breathing, so you breathe deeply into your belly.
There are many advantages to using the diaphragm to breathe including: providing a ‘massage’ to your liver, stomach, and intestines; helping the lymphatic system eliminate the waste from your bowels, and reduction of tension in the neck and shoulders.
If you’re relaxed when you start you will get more out of the breathing.
Remember, your breathing affects your thoughts and feelings and if you breathe ‘tensed’ you’ll experience a stressed breathing pattern which leads to a lack of oxygen being breathed in and increasing the stress.
When you take control of your breathing and are relaxed, your body automatically tunes in and relaxes. And when your body is relaxed your overall wellbeing is greatly enhanced.
Notice the rhythm of your breathing and go with the flow.
Breathing requires no other muscular involvement other than the 18 muscles used for inhalation and exhalation, so there should be no sound.
Sighs, sniffs, coughs, etc., put extra strain on your body and mess up your natural rhythm.
So, unless you absolutely have to sigh, sniff or cough, just breathe.
The benefits of breathing consciously
By taking time for some conscious breathing each and every day you can decrease stress, relax your mind and body and, hopefully, sleep better.
Some other benefits include:
Breathing deeply helps relieve pain.
Why do you think we’re told to breathe during childbirth? Because it helps you relax and feel less pain. The reason being is, that when you breathe deeply your body releases the feel-good hormones, endorphins, which are also the body’s own natural pain killer.
Deep breathing improves the flow of blood around your body which, in turn, increases the amount of oxygen in your blood.
And increased oxygen results in more energy.
Bad posture is related to bad breathing.
When you breathe deeply into your belly, through your nose, your body naturally starts to straighten up. This is because when you fill your lungs, not just the top part, with air your spine is automatically encouraged to straighten.
No more rounded shoulders and collapsed middles!
More efficient waste removal
The ‘waste’ from breathing is carbon dioxide, which is normally expelled when we breathe out.
Shallow breathing results in other detoxification systems having to step in, work harder and help expel the excess carbon dioxide. But deep breathing relieves this, which in turn helps keep the body strong.
Deep breathing also helps the lymphatic system (another detoxification system) get the lymph (the fluid that flows through the lymphatic system) flowing properly, which helps your body work more efficiently.
The digestive system is also made more efficient by deep breathing due to the increase in oxygen and blood flow. Additionally, deep breathing calms the nervous system, which also helps to enhance optimal digestion.
In general, we hold tension in our bodies which makes our muscles tight and our breathing shallower.
By breathing deeply you can help reverse this situation, releasing stress and tension to allow your body to relax and your mind to become calmer and clearer.
Breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have available. Better health, more energy and a calm mind are just a breath away. So, just breathe!
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