We breathe all day (and night) long, but have you thought about your breath today?
In modern life we pay attention to how we exercise, how long we sleep, and what we eat – we know that they are key for our vitality. But did you know 90% of your energy should come through the breath?
Respiration happens automatically, but we can also consciously control our breathing. And, in many ancient cultures (including India and China), breath control has been used as medicine for the body and mind, a tool to activate our own natural healing powers.* With the development of modern medicine we have lost some wisdom from the ancient worlds about the importance of our breath.
Too fast, too shallow
It is widely agreed that the healthiest rate for adults to breathe is between 3 & 6 breaths a minute. This allows for optimum oxygen transfer from the blood to the cells in our body.
Yet stress, poor posture and lack of movement mean that the average person is taking between 12 and 20 breaths each minute. We are gulping down air without getting all the goodness.
When we breathe fast, it also tends to be shallow - research has shown that most people use less than 20% of the surface area of their lungs.
This modern breathing pattern leaves us low on energy, which we can perceive as hunger or tiredness, and it can invite a host of health problems, including anxiety, stress, stroke and high blood pressure.
The breath in yoga
Yogis have always been aware of the importance of bringing "Prana" (the yogic word for our energy, or life-force) in through the breath. Pranayama, or breath control, is a core yogic practice for both energising and calming our nervous system.
The three-part yogic breath, (breathing into the belly, ribs and upper chest) is a deep, slow breath, which stimulates the vagus nerve and switches on the parasympathetic nervous system. This brings us to our repair and digest state and alleviates stress and anxiety.
As we synchronise moving into postures with the breath, we unite the body and our mind's intention in our own natural rhythm, which can bring a feeling of peace or flow. As we breathe together as a group in class we start to feel our essential connection to each other, the reality of the yogic attitude that 'we are all one'.
On my quest to find out more about the power of the breath this year, I’ve taken workshops with two teachers who have specialised in this field:
Alan Dolan: The Breath Guru
Transformational breathing is a very intense practice that changes our oxygen levels so that we can explore different levels of consciousness. Each experience of this technique is different, but practitioners can become more aware of their emotions, let go of things they were holding onto and experience peace and deep relaxation. I like to explore things that are 'out there' and some of my transformational breath experiences have been truly remarkable.
Ben uses his own self-practice and deep research into the breath to provide breath techniques that are side-effect free for all and that can help with a range of physical and emotional issues. I'd highly recommend one of his workshops.
What can I do?
Spend some time each day focusing on your breath and encourage your body to return to the slow belly breaths you took as a baby. I use this simple technique most days to unwind, recharge and manage any emotional turbulence:
1. Get comfortable, seated or lying down. Start by noticing your natural breath pattern. Observe the rate of the flow and where you can feel the breath moving in your body.
2. Close the mouth if it is open and just breathe in and out through the nose.
3. Start to encourage the breath down to the belly, you can place the hands there to feel it. The belly should gently expand as you breathe in, the breath then fills up the lower and side ribs and finally the upper chest and back. When we breathe out the breath flows out of the upper body, lower chest and side body, and then the belly.
4. If you can’t feel the breath moving in the belly, pull your belly button in towards your spine as you breathe out fully. Relax the belly on the inhale and it should balloon out with the incoming air.
5. Try to slow down your exhale and fully empty the lungs. A full exhalation triggers a reflex, which allows the next inhale to be deep and easy. The breath also eliminates 70% of the body’s waste.
6. See if you can make each breath last at least 10 seconds. It might take some practice for you to achieve this. If you are preparing for bed and want to relax count to 4 on the inhale and 6 on the exhale. If you want to energise yourself try to count to 6 on both the inhale and exhale.
7. Keep your awareness focused down in the belly and when the mind gets distracted, gently bring it back to the breath.
8. Relax :) Breathing in this way should start to calm your nervous system in under ten minutes.
*I’m currently reading ‘The Healing power of the breath’ by Richard P. Brown, MD where you can find lots more detail on this topic.