Take a moment and pay attention to your next few breaths. Go ahead, just stop reading and observe your breathing.
Did you notice that your breathing instantly changed? The mere act of paying attention to your breathing creates a slower, steadier breathing pattern.
The sad fact is that most people don’t start thinking about their breathing unless it is seriously challenged by illness or old age. The mere act of stopping and checking in with how you are breathing can have a powerful effect on your day, and doing so consistently can bring numerous benefits to your life.
Your breathing rate and style of breathing directly affect the major systems of your body. Breathing well balances your blood pressure, regenerates your cells and helps strengthen your immune system. In fact, all your efforts at a healthy lifestyle are directly dependent upon the quality of your breathing. The efficiency of your breathing determines how well your body metabolizes food; for every liter of oxygen a person breathes, they use about 4.82 kilocalories of energy from glycogen or fat.
Your breathing skills will also determine how capable your body is of delivering the required oxygen during your next workout. Al Lee, co-author of the book Perfect Breathing says:
“By increasing the strength and stamina of your respiratory system, your breathing becomes more efficient, requiring less energy—which leaves more energy for the motor muscles and whatever task or activity you’re involved in.”
When it comes to emotional health, the most important relationship you will ever have is the one you have with your breathing. When we are upset due to fear, anger, or physical or emotional pain, our breathing becomes altered. If we keep breathing through the difficult times and allow the feelings to process, our breathing will eventually be restored. However, denying uncomfortable emotions will cause tension in our breathing. Over time, the effects of this tension will cause distress to both the body and the mind. The good news is that breath work can allow any old, buried emotions to surface, giving us the opportunity to process them. In doing so, we restore freedom to our breathing.
Our way of breathing dictates so many other aspects of our emotional and physical health (and don’t get me started about the diaphragm; the movements of that muscle practically affect the whole body). The main breathing muscle is attached to the upper, middle, and lower portions of our bodies; it affects our cervical spinal nerves, is attached to the lower part of our sternum (the xiphoid process) and L4 and L5 [segments] of our lumbar spine. So far, I’ve been referring mostly to oxygen delivery, but there is great importance when it comes to the movement of our breathing. The free movement of our spinal column and health of many nerves are dependent upon the movement of the diaphragm and its accessory respiratory muscles.
Lower back pain can be greatly alleviated by becoming mindful of the diaphragm’s connection to our lumbar spine. There are studies that prove that good breathing stabilizes the spinal column and prevents injury.
We tend to think of our breathing in a superficial way. We breathe in oxygen, and we breathe out carbon dioxide.
I often hear people say, “I’m breathing, so what’s the problem? Why do I need to work with my breathing?” To which I respond, “How is it possible that you are not more curious about the very activity that keeps you alive?”
That question continues to baffle me, but things are slowly changing and breath work is becoming more and more adjunct to medical interventions. Over my 25 years of teaching, I have met many doctors, and all of them are recommending breath work for depression, anxiety, chronic gastrointestinal disease,blood pressure, and heart disease, just to name a few. Everything we do requires technique, and breathing is no exception. Knowing how to enhance the delivery of breath through the body is a skill that can and should be learned by all.
The way we breathe is the way we live…labored and heavy, faint and light, or free-flowing and omnipresent. The choice is up to us. Our breath is among our most powerful healing tools. People who are aware of their breathing, feel younger, look younger and deal with all of life’s challenges better. The yogic philosophy on breathing is that one is as old as the amount of breaths one has taken and there is evidence in the medical world to support the importance of slower, fewer breaths per minute.
It has been documented that a breathing rate of six breaths per minute is optimum at keeping us, well, optimum.
If you don’t already have a breathing practice, I hope I have inspired you to begin one. Our breath is automatic, yes, but it’s the one automatic function in our bodies that we have some power over. Don’t be under the false impression that anything that functions automatically cannot be improved upon with practice. Our hearts are beating all the time and although we can’t work directly with our hearts, cardiac health can improve immensely through breath work. In fact, by breathing with intention and understanding, we can enhance every organ and every system of our bodies.
Be mindful of your breathing, and you will not only become healthier and stronger, but you will become more in tune with every aspect of your being. Your breath is a phenomenal gift, an internal activity that you don’t need to pay attention to, but one that, I believe, nature intended you to pay attention to, so that you not only live for another moment, but thrive over the course of a lifetime.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: elephant archives