In twenty-four-hour periods, we can take up to 20,000 breaths and unless our breathing becomes laboured, most of us won’t give it a second thought.
Exhalation, when you think of it, is the body’s primary method for eliminating waste as this is the way carbon dioxide (CO2) is removed from the bloodstream. As well as flushing the body with vital oxygen on the in-breath, 70% of the body’s waste is purged on the out-breath.
Even though we save our own lives with it, thousands of times a day, breathing isn’t taken very seriously at all. Many of us, often without realizing, will habitually prevent the proper function of our respiratory system and find ourselves ‘chest breathing’.
Shallow, or chest breathing, is not only a signal of stress and anxiety but could induce those symptoms too by restricting the amount of oxygen coming into the body. Also, if CO² is left to build up, instead of being purged with a strong out-breath, our bodies will have to work harder just to keep going. This causes lethargy and, in the long term, weakens our immune system.
For respiration, our diaphragm is the muscle we should turn to first because if we didn’t, breathing would be manual labour. If we underuse it, as with any other muscular system in the body, surrounding muscles will kick in to take up the slack or, at least, try to. In this case, the intercostal muscles located between the ribs, pectorals of the chest and even some neck muscles chip in to help but because respiration isn’t their role, a dysfunctional relay gets started.
This backup system is hard to sustain so doesn’t last for long. When it breaks down on us, we’re left with breathing problems and/or poor posture.
Ideally, when breathing, rather than a rise and fall in the chest, our stomachs should expand and contract. We see this rise and fall in infants who don’t breathe self-consciously but by simply allowing their bodies to function naturally.
Our diaphragm can be developed with exercise, just like any other muscle, and deep breathing helps to develop its strength and efficiency.
Our quality of breathing is further influenced by our emotional state. Deep breathing will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as ‘relaxation response’. When we’re upset, anticipating danger or something else unpleasant, notice how our breathing becomes more shallow. We instantly restrict the oxygen to our muscles, causing them to constrict and become uptight, indicating that the sympathetic nervous system (active during the ‘fight or flight’ response) is now overstimulated. At this point, a long deep breath would be like flicking on a switch and will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing each system back into harmony, almost instantly.
Dr Peter Brown, head of Performance Knowledge at Sheffield’s EIS, says in times of danger, our fight or flight instinct kicks in and in case we need another gear to make an escape, the brain automatically recruits the secondary muscles. The prime mover, the diaphragm, will be reserved in case we need a turbo gear.
Notice what your clever body does when you purposely take a deep breath. Didn’t you just grow an inch as you instinctively straightened up, pulled your shoulders back and pushed your chest out to draw in more oxygen?
When we are conscious of the importance of correct technique, functional breathing can become second nature so unless we’re experiencing on-going emotional upset, our 20,000 breaths will be functional ones which engage the all-important diaphragm.
“Take a deep breath” _Ancestral wisdom.
Functional breathing techniques, developed then practised by our ancestors can be the perfect antidote to stress and anxiety. The calming effects from controlled breathing exercises can be appreciated in a matter of seconds, much quicker than it takes for an anti-anxiety pill to kick in. Yoga breathing or Pranayama, practised effectively in holistic medicine, can be repeated often, with only the most positive and beneficial side effects.
Numerous observations made on the happiest most productive people reveal a particular pattern of consistency. They all rise early and put time aside for morning meditation. It can’t be a coincidence. I used to wonder if nipping outside for a smoke was really an excuse for 5 minutes of downtime. Of course, a cigarette break is possibly the most perverse example I could give but the principles are oddly similar. The lasting effects of meditation can be felt by three minutes of focussed breathing, long enough to relax the body and deep enough to quieten the mind, allowing in fresh, original thoughts for revival.