When’s the last time you took a nice deep, purposeful, conscious breath? I mean really paid attention to taking a full deep breath in and then exhaling fully and completely? If you said some time in the last day or two, awesome; if it’s been longer, maybe think about giving it a try…maybe even right this very minute…
I’ve been thinking about the breath a lot lately. When I talk to patient’s about it, I often talk about it in terms of how it effects the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system, a part of the peripheral nervous system, is connected to every organ system in your body. It is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. When you are awake and active and stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is helping you to prepare to “fight or flee” the tigers in life. When you are resting, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, allowing your body to repair and rejuvenate. These two systems are supposed to work in balance with one another, but in our hectic modern day world, too often our sympathetic nervous system is working on over-time, using up our body’s precious resources without taking the time it needs to rest and repair. If this goes on too long, illness can occur. By taking a deep full breath, the relaxation response begins, your body is cued to slow down, and the parasympathetic nervous system comes into play. You allow precious blood to flow through your body, bringing healing, system repair and a sense of calm. You begin to feel calmer, better, more at ease. In this way, through your breath, you link your body and mind. You have an impact on your health and well being through this simple act.
The concept of the breath in our health and well being is not a new one, in fact it is ancient. In Eastern thought, the breath brings Qi or Chi to the body, mind and spirit. The Chi is thought to be the life force of the universe. In it runs the balance of Yin and Yang. Through the breath we connect to this universal life force. It runs along 12 major energy channels in the body called meridians. When the body comes out of balance, Chi is blocked, and the body becomes ill. In the Torah, or what some refer to as the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Neshema נשמה means both “spirit” and “breath”. God’s breath is seen as God’s spirit and our life force. In Sankrit the word Prana प्राण means “vital life force” as well as “breath”. Prana is thought to be responsible for the beating of the heart and breathing. Prana enters the body through the breath and is sent to every cell through the circulatory system. When this is disrupted the body becomes ill and our vitality is disrupted. What is that they say? Everything that’s old is new again…
Here’s the good news…we all know how to breathe. The trick is to pay attention to it, to really become aware of it’s power and influence over our health and well being. The hardest thing about practicing breath work is simply remembering to do it. Just like any activity, make sure it suits you and your routine. Will it be best for you to take time to breathe during your morning shower, during your lunch as you sit outside and look at the trees, during your morning or afternoon walk through the neighborhood or at night before you fall asleep? It doesn’t really matter when you do it, just that you make time to do it. The more you make it part of your regular routine, the more you will benefit.
I know you know how to breathe, but here are some simple steps to really optimize the health effects of breathing:
1) PAY ATTENTION. How does it feel to take a nice full breath in through your nose. Does the air feel cool as it enters your body? How does it feel to open your mouth and just let the breath fall out, without any effort? Does it feel warmed by your body? What other sensations do you notice as you simply breathe in and out?
2) BREATHE DEEP. Let yourself take a full deep breath all the way down into your lungs. No shallow chest breathing here. Feel your abdomen expand with the breath. When you breath out, feel your abdomen contract all the way back towards your spine.
3) GO SLOW. Allow yourself to breathe slowly. As your breath slows, your bodily systems will begin to slow and the process of relaxation can begin. Counting sometimes helps you to slow things down, or simply telling yourself to “go slow”.
4) OPTIMIZE YOUR EXPERIENCE. Count the breath. Breathe in for the count of 5 and then out for the count of 5 and notice how it brings your attention directly on to your breath. Or imagine inhaling something that you desire in the moment…perhaps a sense of increased comfort, calmness or well-being. On the exhale, let go of what you don’t want to hold onto…perhaps discomfort, stress, or worry.
5)MAKE IT PURPOSEFUL. Many people don’t like to take the time to breathe because they feel they aren’t keeping busy, that they aren’t doing something. The trick is to tell yourself that the purposeful act of breathing is doing something. It’s breathing. It’s taking time for your health and well being.
So, go ahead, take a breath or two, or five or more. I promise, if you take just the smallest amount of time to do it everyday, you will notice a difference in how you feel. Are you willing to give it a try? I’d love to hear how it goes…
Be happy and well,