Therefore above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” Joseph Pilates
We rarely pause to consider the way we are breathing. Without thinking the average person takes 17,000 breaths per day, drawing in 13 pints of air every minute and exhaling roughly 420ml of water a day. Our lungs are a complex network of tubes leading to tiny sacs called alveoli, across the surface of which essential gas exchange occurs. Hugely intricate, the lungs have the surface area of alveoli to cover approximately the size of a tennis court and they are the biggest waste removal engine of the body.
We have been breathing since the moment we were born so we might all reasonably think we are pros at it. However there are a number of common breathing habits that many of us may have and not even realise:
Breathing through the mouth.
Inhaling more forcefully than we exhale.
Shallow breathing only into the upper rib cage.
Reciprocal inhibited breathing, where our diaphragm rises up on an inhale instead of falling on the inhale.
Holding our breath.
So what can be the triggers of these bad habits and how can we overcome them?
Well, breathing is primarily a function of the autonomic nervous system and does not require conscious thought, the same as digesting food or blinking. (However, it is possible for us to also consciously control it through the central nervous system, making it a pretty unique function of the body). The autonomic nervous system which is responsible for controlling our passive breathing is made up of the enteric (digestive), the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems.
The sympathetic nervous system is our fight or flight response system; it activates our ‘superhero’ powers that prepare the body to avoid conflict or danger, helping us cope with and rise to many challenges. As part of this response it speeds up our heart rate and breathing, making it become shallower. Whilst the parasympathetic nervous system is like a parachute which gently lowers us to the ground, it stimulates the rest and digest functions. It slows our breathing and heart rate. Ordinarily these systems work together (sympathovagal balance) we should alternate between the sympathetic (stress response) and the parasympathetic (relaxation response) nervous systems every 1-4 hours.
But problems occur because we can often get jammed in our sympathetic nervous system and it’s stress response due to the continuous demands of modern life such as money problems, traffic jams, relationship problems, work issues and of course the current pandemic. This causes a spike in cortisol and other stress hormones which when stimulated too frequently can raise blood pressure, accelerate the onset of heart disease, cause chronic fatigue, depression and the suppression of the immune system thus increasing our susceptibility to other illnesses. Additionally when we are stuck in the sympathetic nervous system even reactions to small stimuli may also become exaggerated, small stresses become anxiety and little allergic reactions may become hives or rashes. Our breathing habits can be an indicator of this over stimulation.
We cannot avoid all stress in our lives and nor do we want to, some stress is positive, but we do need to learn to develop healthier ways to respond to stress and to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system response more frequently. One way is to use the power of our breath.
Our breath is an indicator of our mood and our mood is an indicator of our breath. Or put another way our mood influences our breathing and conversely our breathing can influence our mood. So consciously using our breath, slowing it down and breathing more deeply into the abdomen is one way to deliberately stimulate our autonomic nervous system to activate the parasympathetic relaxation responses slowing the heartbeat and stabilising blood pressure.
There are many ways to do this in fact every relaxation, calming or meditation technique uses the common denominator of breath work. One of the 8 ancient limbs of yoga is pranayama (breath work) and moderate mindful exercises like Tai Chi or Pilates can help reduce stress and train the sympathetic nervous system not to become overactive.
Start practising breath work today so that you may reap its benefits of hacking into the relaxation responses of the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing the negative influences of an overactive sympathetic nervous system.
The benefits are physical and mental, for both adults and children.
How to start with breath work.
The simplest first step is to find a quiet corner, sit comfortably or lie down and just take note of how you breathe. Then try to inhale fully through your nose drawing the air all the way down into your abdomen, feeling the chest and belly rise, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Try to count and make your exhale longer than your inhale. Inhaling to a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 6. Once you have mastered this you can explore the many other breathwork techniques such as alternate nostril breathing, box breathing and breath of fire.
Pause today to breathe deeply, for your health and wellbeing.
“When the breath becomes agitated, the mind follows. When we regulate the breath, the mind will become more clear and calm” Inside the Yoga Sutras