Throughout the pages of this blog I have often referred to very simple ways in which we can positively impact our health: practicing good sleep hygiene (link), getting adequate sunlight and water, allowing our bodies movement (link) throughout the day. Breathing is another simple yet immensely powerful aspect of our health which is often overlooked. Since breathing is automatic, many of us forget that we can control our breathing by focusing our attention to it. Today’s stress-riddled world of constant stimulation has largely sped up our breathing patterns, so most of us actually need to re-train ourselves to breathe properly. Breath control practices ranging from Pranayama, the ancient yogic practice, to the more recent (and vigorous) Wim Hof Method have become mainstream …. but just because we are familiar with the concepts doesn’t mean we always remember to practice proper breathing on a daily basis. If I consciously remind myself to breathe deeply and slowly – whether it be during an exceptionally challenging exercise or before presenting at a networking event – the benefits are always immediately obvious. Devoting the time to a full breath meditation practice can have profound effects on our physical, mental and spiritual health. It can help us rid ourselves of years of trauma and deeply rooted fears. For many people this is a lifelong journey. However, the rest of us can reap the benefits of a beginner practice! Simply focusing on our breath for a few moments is a quick way to alter our mind-body state.
On a purely physical level, the breath is clearly important. There is a direct correlation between breathing and the autonomic nervous system. Potential threats ramp up our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response), causing physiological changes such as increased heart rate and faster, shallower breathing. These threats can take the form of cellphone alerts, email pings, stressful traffic conditions ..all constants in our everyday lives, which increasingly impact our breathing. The average person tends to breathe 14-20 breaths per minute, whereas the ideal for maximum benefits is 5-6 breaths per minute. That’s a significant disparity! However, multiple studies have shown that the correlation between breathing and the nervous system works in the opposite direction as well. By slowing down our breathing, we can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest and digest mechanism. When our breathing is calm and peaceful, our bodies and minds are calm and peaceful. When our breath is agitated and disturbed, so are our bodies and minds.
If we just pay attention and allow ourselves something so simple as fuller deeper breaths, we can lower our stress levels. One variation of a basic deep breathing practice would go like this:
With a straight spine and open chest (shoulders back), take a deep breath in through the nose to the count of 4. Make sure that your belly expands as much as or more than your chest. Diaphragmatic breathing allows for greater oxygen transfer to the lower lobes of the lungs, increases blood flow to the lungs and stimulates the lymphatic system. Hold this breath for a count of 7, then exhale fully and audibly through the mouth to a count of 8, contracting your abdomen to push all of the air out. Repeat for one minute.
If we want to take it a step further, we can take some time out of the day to actually meditate on the breath. There are many ways to do this. My mentor gave me a fantastic book on the breath: “The Miracle of the Breath: Mastering Fear, Healing Illness, and Experiencing the Divine”, by Andy Caponigro. The author has five different meditations on the breath, including invigorating ones designed for energy and expansion. This book really spoke to me, but a quick google search for breath meditation will bring up many others, one of which might appeal to you more. (There’s even an app for that!)
Here is Caponigro’s basic beginner breath meditation:
Sit up straight with a pillow under your hips, so they are slightly elevated. This will keep your spine straight. Place your hands in your lap, palms up, with the thumbs touching. Now simply pay attention to your breath, without forcibly trying to relax or calm your mind. If your mind wanders, just return your attention to the breath. The author suggests thinking of your mind as a person and the breath as a canoe – so the key is to always keep your mind balanced on your “canoe”. Allow yourself to become fully absorbed in watching your breath, and try to stay in this state for 45 minutes if possible (or 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night).
This is just the first step in this author’s profound healing paradigm, but I find it is often enough for beginners to embark on a relationship with the breath. Paying attention to very simple basics is often all that is needed to get our bodies back in a balanced state.