by Campbell Will
You will breathe at least 20,000 times today. The way in which you take those breaths is extremely important. It can affect everything from your state of mind, resilience to stress, heart rate, blood pressure even hormone release. But for something that is so powerful and so important, isn't it strange that you were never taught how to do it? You might be thinking, well I'm breathing right now, I don't need to learn. But what if your breathing was adding fuel to the fire of your anxiety, insomnia, irritability, energy ... and you didn't know it. By peeling back the layers and looking at our breath, we can learn how to use it as a tool, as an ally, as a friend.
The obvious role of our breath is to keep us alive. It brings in oxygen, it takes out waste. But it also regulates the pH of our blood, calms or aggravates our mind, stimulates blood flow and the lymphatic system, supports our core and low back, and allows us to regulate our own energy. These things are all happening in the background, they are automatic. But breathing is unique in the fact that it is both automatic and also under our conscious control. Up to this point as you have been reading, you haven't needed to think about breathing. But right now I want you to take 1 slow, deep breath and hold it for 5 seconds... Let it go with a big sigh. Just then you grabbed a hold of the steering wheel and directed your breath, and therefore your nervous system and physiology. Pretty amazing right!?
How you breathe affects how you feel. How you feel affects the decisions you make and the actions you take. The simplest but also trickiest part of this equation is awareness. You must notice how you are breathing. Are you breathing 10 x / minute, or 20 x / minute? Are you breathing with your nose or your mouth? Is it smooth or choppy? The way in which you breathe creates downstream shifts in mood, and can create irritability, frustration or agitation.
Like any practice, it often takes a little time to develop the skills. One day of breath awareness will not erase the years or decades of stress and tension built up in your body. You must make a commitment to check and change your breath over and over, creating the neural groove that will eventually become habit. We need to invest time into training the autopilot, ensuring that optimal becomes automatic.
So, where to start? Well, how are you breathing right now? Take a moment and observe:
Nose or mouth? You should be breathing through your nose 99% of the time. If your mouth is open ... close it!
Chest or Belly? If you are sitting reading a blog, and your upper chest and shoulders are moving as you breathe, that's a problem. Soften the breath, draw it down into the belly, relax the shoulders, breathing should be effortless.
Fast or Slow? How many times do you breathe in a minute? Start a timer, and count your breaths for 1 minute. If your number is higher than 12 - you have work to do, but you also have a huge amount of potential!
Try checking your breath at least once an hour and ensure nose/belly/slow. Create the neurological groove, train the autopilot. Then you can dive into the therapeutic breathwork practices that create the big shifts in mindset, mood and energy.
Put simply, your breath is both the accelerator and the brake of your nervous system. You can think of the nervous system as the operating system of the body. It tells us whether we need to be awake and alert, or calm and relaxed. It tells us to prepare for a fight, or to digest food (you may have heard of the "fight or flight" or "rest and digest" response. Having a way to consciously direct your nervous system gives you the ability to better regulate how you are feeling.
When we breathe quickly, with our mouth or with our chest - we signal to the body it is time for action. Our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up, we even begin to release cortisol and adrenaline. This is not what we want when trying to calm down or go to sleep. When we breathe slowly, through our nose, and using our diaphragm, we signal the body that we are safe, it is OK to switch off and move into rest and recovery mode. In addition, when we exhale longer than we inhale, we strengthen this effect. Try the following exercise when you are feeling anxious, you are trying to sleep, or to simply relax.
Breathing entirely through the nose and trying your best to breathe with the diaphragm or belly.
Start by counting how long your inhale takes (eg. 3 seconds) and then ensure that your exhale is the same (3 seconds). Just establish an easy rhythm, 3 in, 3 out.
Now we want to begin to lengthen the exhale, so we simply add 1 second to the exhale. (3 seconds in, 4 seconds out). Take a few breaths, trying to be aware of your body. Now let's again add 1 second to our exhale (3 in, 5 out). Take a few breaths, soft and smooth, maybe notice your heartbeat slowing. One more time let's add 1 second to the exhale (3 in, 6 out). When our exhale is twice the length of our inhale it sends a calming signal to the body and brain. Try and stay with this pattern for at least 5 minutes ... or until you fall asleep!
Your breath can either be your worst enemy or your best friend. It can be a tool that you hone and refine until it becomes your greatest ally. It is with you all of the time, it is free, its effect is instantaneous, it requires no equipment and it is just under your nose! Start by becoming aware of your breath throughout the day. When does it change? How am I breathing when I feel calm vs. stressed? The more attention you pay to the breath, the more you can begin to control it and therefore control your mind, body and emotional state. Change your breath, change your life.