Breathing. Probably one of the most undervalued and overlooked aspects of our health. Its relevance to our state of mind and its influence on how our bodies function, is largely ignored and underrated. Despite this indifference it is, along with the beating of our heart, the most important and vital acts we do, to be. Our breathing pattern and rhythm changes during the day and during different emotional states. For example: yawning and sighing when we’re overwhelmed; panting when we’re exhausted and breath holding in response to fear or concentration. Breathing is one of the few functions our bodies perform which are both voluntary and involuntary. We can breathe automatically without thought or we can change it consciously and at will.
If you have never really thought in any depth about how your body ‘breathes’ or you consider your breath to be nothing more than air coming in – air going out, I invite you to think again.
- Take a moment to notice how you breathe. Deeply, shallowly, quickly, slowly, smoothly or jaggedly?
- Where in your chest do you notice your breath expand? Shoulders, sides or tum?
- How do you feel when you pause to pay significant attention for several minutes? Calmer, intrigued, surprised?
My Retreat. Revive. workshop earlier this month, was centred around breathing. A whole day was dedicated to understanding, discovering and influencing how we breathe in and how we breathe out. This lead to observing the effect our breath had on our mindset, energy levels and ability to move, both slowly and during exertion. Despite spending a day working through this, we only scratched the surface with regards to how our breath directly effects our mental, physical and emotional health.
For some insight into the effect understanding and controlling your breath can have upon you, here is a snippet from some of the feedback:
Thank you so much for such a wonderful and inspiring day. I am still on a high. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Even though I have only just sat down this evening I feel incredibly relaxed and energised….long may it continue.
I found the whole day useful and am practising the breathing all the time, sitting standing and in bed at night.
Came home with a feeling of wellbeing and contentment – knowing that there is work to be done, but that improvements can, hopefully, be achieved. A very positive and enjoyable day so, again, many thanks.
Without stopping to think how deeply or where in our chest we inhale or exhale, most of us survive on shallow breaths interspersed with prolonged moments of inadvertent breath holding. However, understanding more about our ‘breath of life’ and positively influencing it, is the quickest, most efficient and effective way to trigger a relaxation response and greater comfort and efficiency when we exert ourselves. This in turn enables us to think more clearly and perform better under pressure, during physical activity as well as in everyday tasks and activities.
Babies and children breathe deeply naturally. However, as adults we lose the ability because we are so often in a constant state of low-level fight-or-flight or heightened stress mode. The way we breathe manifests itself into our bodies. This can result in shallow anxious breathing for extended periods of time, without us realising it. Our breathing pattern acts as one of the most sensitive indicators or warning signs of stress and is a vital link between mind and body. It is because of this interdependence that we are able to use our breathing pattern to determine how much we are affected by stress and other negative emotional states.
When we are anxious, stressed or upset in any way, typically our breath becomes shallow and jagged. This results in tension in our bodies and poor postural control which over time, leads to stiffer joints and muscles, particularly in our neck, shoulders and spines. However we can reverse this by centring our attention on how are air flows in and flows out. This lowers our levels of mental tension enabling our thoughts to focus and flow more easily, while lowering are blood pressure and heart rates.
Likewise if we are repeatedly slouched, whether sitting, standing, walking or running, our lungs ability to fully expand and contract is significantly curtailed resulting in stale air stagnating in our lungs. In reverse, if we straighten up and breathe deeply into our lower chest (given that the lungs expand almost to our waists, in line with our lower ribs) we maximise our air exchange; fresh air in (oxygen), stale air out (carbon dioxide). This then enables our bodies to move and perform more efficiently and effectively, more of the time, regardless of whether we are still or active.
It is not necessarily an easy transition from recognising how you are breathing and adjusting to a pattern and depth that maximises your lung capacity. However, I will be running more Retreat. Revive. workshops in the future for those of you who wish to learn more about how to use your breath to full effect, enhancing your mental and physical health.
For now though, simply start by sitting or lying quietly to observe your breath in and your breath out. Don’t try and work anything out or change anything. Attempting to influence your breathing can be counterproductive. The more you try to change something that appears hard to alter, often results in increased tension both in mind and body. This only serves to lessen the benefits our breath can offer. Simply observe and tune into your breathing pattern in that moment.
As you continue to do this observe any changes that occur, both in how your body feels and how your mind responds. Don’t repeatedly take in deep breaths or you may become light headed and dizzy. Simply note the automatic and unconscious pattern of your ‘everyday’ breathing. Keep practicing these observations for short spells of time, during different parts of the day and differing activities, to see what changes occur.
This simple act of observing and tuning into your breath is the first step towards appreciating its relevance to your mind body and soul. If you think I am overstating its value, try out what I have suggested and see whether I am overstating its importance or whether in fact I am not overstating its place enough. You be the judge and remember to pass your verdict on to me.
Take a moment, pay full attention and be renewed through your breath of life, for life.