Let's take it back to the beginning. A beginning that we all share in common. its the first action we take after leaving our mother's womb. Ready? Ok, in 3....2...1. Take a deep breath. Feel your chest rise and fall? How does that feel? How do you know you're doing it right? Right or wrong, it's essential. Sweat Nation, let's go over and clarify a few breathing exercises that will serve to relieve stress, improve focus, and even lower your blood pressure.
I was on a hike with a buddy Mike from San Francisco, while hiking the Rubicon Trail in Lake Tahoe. He was telling me how much better he's been feeling after he quit smoking cigarettes and began doing yoga with more consistency. Other benefits mentioned were how much easier it felt to be on a hike, and increased clarity of mind experienced throughout the day. I then thought to ask, "What is it that you miss about smoking?"
"Having a smoke when I'm stressed."
That's an honest answer. I thought as I began to make this connection. "What is it that you're doing with when you smoke a cigarette?"
"Yes! What is it that they ask you to focus on with when you begin your yoga practice?"
"Maybe it's not that act of smoking that's giving you the stress relief. Perhaps it's that when you smoke, you're taking deep breaths. That's the power of breathing. Don't you think it'd have much more power if it wasn't taken in with a load of carcinogens?"
"You know, that makes total sense."
"Every once in a while I surprise myself with some clever analogies!"
Breathing, it's at the core of many ancestral practices. No matter which part of the world you look into, all of them have a focused breathing practice, currently, with mindfulness practices, from yoga and tai chi to meditation. Research is suggesting that breathing exercises alone deliver benefits that are positive for your mind & body. Scientists are working to figure out what benefits can be measured by different aspects of breathing. The physical act of inhaling deeply. The effect of abundant oxygen and thorough flushing of carbon dioxide (a byproduct of the body's energy creation), and the relaxation that ensues. To date, there has not been a definitive study to describe the contribution of breathings components, but the learning is happening. Whatever the benefits, deep, controlled breathing, filling the lungs to the max. Or as I call it when teaching clients/patients, belly or diaphragmatic breathing(DPH), has been linked to improved mental performance and lower stress levels. That's what our buddy Mike is experiencing.
Purposeful breathing for a few minutes a day seems to lower blood pressure. Slow, controlled breathing, a technique that focuses on inhaling and breathing out slowly — can quickly reduce heart rate, helping to combat panic attacks & acute anxiety. We live in a world where it's easy to reach for a pill such as Xanax to get control over anxiety. It's easy to understand why. Fear can fill us with desperation. Who wouldn't want the immediate relief they may find in a pill? What if you had a tool like yoga in your toolbox. Yoga's focus on breathing can alleviate anxiety in minutes. Not only do you practice focusing on breathing, but you're also getting in purposeful movement. The combination of both release endorphins that zap anxiety at it's cause. Once you experience the physical relaxation and mental calming, you'll be more motivated to work with your breath and leave the medication for when its a more extreme vase.
What If yogas not your thing.
Belief in controlled breathing goes back many centuries. Central to ancient Hindu philosophy is prana, described as vital "airs" or "energies" flowing through the body. Stemming from that belief yoga was built on pranayama or breath retention. In the first half of the 20th century, deep breathing began to emerge on its own as a relaxation method. In fact, all relaxation, calming, & meditation techniques rely on breathing. It's the most common denominator in all approaches to calming the mind & body.
Yoga and meditation are soaring in popularity. Reports suggest that approximately 15% of the population is picking up a meditation practice. That leaves out many who, for whatever reason, aren't experiencing the benefits of breathing. Perhaps like my buddy, they're relying on cigarettes or worse yet pharmaceuticals.
Let's go over the basics of inhaling and exhaling.
Most of the time, breathing just happens. It's run by your autonomic nervous system, centered in the brain stem. Nerve cells signal the diaphragm and other muscles to inhale and exhale. Nerve cells in the arteries monitor the blood's oxygen levels, signaling to the system how fast and how deep to breathe. Other nerve cells keep watch on carbon dioxide levels (CO2) in the blood and in the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain. It's the amount of CO2, a byproduct of energy created by the body's cells, that is the primary catalyst for breathing, more so than low oxygen levels. Excess CO2 triggers a message to the brain stem to increase the rate and depth of breathing. It's at this intersection of consciousness where controlled breathing techniques can get the autonomic system under control.
Nerves in higher brain centers can, without your permission, increase breathing activity when you feel pain or strong emotions. Extreme stress, whether caused by a genuine fear of an imminent threat or perceived dangers like worry over being fired, instigates a slew of autonomic responses that we all have heard as the fight-or-flight response. You've likely experienced the symptoms: a pounding heart, shallow breathing, perhaps a tensing of muscles, and sudden sweating. It's your body's way of preparing to confront a marauding band of barbarians or to turn up the speed when being chased by a hungry predator.
Breathing is the only part of the autonomic system we can become aware of. But the unconscious signals will often override our thoughtful efforts. It's at this moment of awareness, where controlled breathing can bring your heartbeat, anxiety, and emotional stress back to baseline by bringing the autonomic system under control.
Getting back to belly(DPH) breathing
When working with patients/clients, the first thing I look at is if when they are breathing is the air going through their belly, stomach, or even neck and shoulders. Normal human breathing at rest should raise the belly. Just like a sleeping child. Chest breathing can be useful when we need suck in gobs of oxygen quickly too, say, flee that predator, but getting the breath back under control as quickly as possible has many benefits.
Modernity seems to have surrounded us by so many stressors that have led us to a state of chronic tension. It doesn't turn off, and we adapt to it. To relax during a particularly stressful moment, taking slow, deep belly breaths and interrupt the fight-or-flight response can make all the difference in how this chronic state affects you. At rest, you usually breathe 12 to 16 times per minute. Deep breathing involves drawing in more air, at a controlled pace, to reach a rate of six breaths per minute or less.
The basic belly breath of pranayama goes like this: Become aware of your breath wherever you are. Breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs from the bottom up, first expanding your belly, then your chest, and finally raising the collar bones. Hold it in for up to four seconds, Then gently exhale from top to bottom, using your stomach muscles to push out the last of the air. Pause, repeat.
To develop a rhythm, count to yourself during each step. If you count "one, two, three, four" seconds on the inhale, pause, and exhale, you've completed a 12-second box breath, a pace of six per minute. Counting forces you to be aware and sets you up to measure progress toward even longer breaths.
Like everyone who is alive, I have stress in my life. I exercise regularly, which causes me to breathe deeply. My 2019 resolution is present awareness. I've been meditating and focusing on deep breathing all year when stress is high, and energy is low. I think to myself "let me take a few simple deep breaths."
Then I begin box breathing. The effect is intensely stimulating, distinct from a workout high yet somehow similarly pleasant with each breath, and each lowering of my breathing rate, the problems of the day flow in and out. Is it mostly the physicality of breathing, the enhanced oxygen-CO2 exchange, or is it the intense, quiet focus that leaves me relaxed and energized? I'm not sure, but having a tool to control stress, fear, and anxiety makes this practice well worth it.
Sweat Nation! Make it a point to breathe with purpose today. Here's to everything from the calming breath to the times in life that take your breath away. Peace, love, smiles.
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