Breathing is important and we take it for granted, yet it’s integral to our wellbeing. It’s the simplest tool we have to take control of our health and wellness.
Take a few moments to notice how you breathe. What are the qualities of your breath? Is it deep or shallow, ragged or smooth, do the lengths of inhale and exhale match? Do you breathe with your shoulders and chest or into your belly?
The shoulder and chest muscles that are used in respiration are considered accessory or secondary breathing muscles. Breathing with the shoulder and chest muscles stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the body’s stress response, and as such the body prepares itself for survival. Muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, the immune system is compromised and the delicate balance of hormones is disturbed.
More tangibly, you may experience a higher incidence of muscle tension and headaches, sleep poorly, lack energy, experience trouble with focus and memory and suffer from overall malaise. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, breathing into the belly or with your diaphragm, the primary breathing muscle, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” or relaxation response. When the brain isn’t concerned about survival, hormone levels equalize and the brain sends important resources to digestion, elimination and reproduction. You’ll begin to experience better sleep, less tension, elevated energy levels, improved moods and mental acuity.
Here’s the thing, although you may feel relaxed as you lie on your couch reading a book or watching TV, but if you’re breathing with the secondary or accessory muscles your brain isn’t convinced. Think of the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of your nervous system as primitive. The brain can’t differentiate between work or school related stress and getting chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. It has one imperative and that is ensuring survival.
Breathing with the diaphragm, also known as belly breathing is as easy as it sounds. The diaphragm rest between the lungs and the belly and when the lungs expand with an inhale they press down onto the diaphragm which in turn presses on the belly causing it to expand. The lungs soften with the exhale and the pressure on the diaphragm and belly lifts, everything becomes soft.
It’s a simple practice called mindfulness that starts with becoming aware of situations or thoughts that get the your mind going, mental chatter, also known as your worst enemy. Notice if you’re holding or restricted your breath. Stop and focus on the flow of your breath instead of that thought or situation. As you inhale feel your belly expand. Keep your shoulders and chest soft. Notice a natural pause. Exhale allow the belly, shoulder and chest to soften more. Allow your breath to flow naturally, let it be easeful and comforting, slow down.
A mindfulness practice is simple and powerful thing we can do for ourselves, but simplicity doesn’t always equate to easy. So here are a few tricks or breathing “exercises” to help you connect to your breath and develop your awareness.
Breathing Countdown. Pick an arbitrary number and count down (in your head) each part of your breath cycle until you reach zero. For example, inhale 50, exhale 49, inhale 48, exhale. If you’re mind wanders before you reach zero, start from the top.
Affirmation Breathing. Inhale “Let” Exhale “go”.
Extending the exhale. There is a general tendency to shorten the exhale in an attempt to improve the quality of the inhale. This is not the case, extending the exhale strengthens the diaphragm and increases the capacity of our lungs thereby improving the quality of our breath. Think about exercising your relaxation response.
As you inhale allow your belly to expand. Nothing is forced, everything is easeful, exhale a little, pause, exhale a little more, pause and exhale completely. Repeat. Notice what you feel, let go of any expectation of doing it right or wrong and simply enjoy.
Reconnecting with our breath takes practice but even one or two moments of mindfulness is better than none. Set an intention and go easy on yourself. No criticism or judgement, and know that you’re in great company because this is everyone’s struggle.