What’s the first thing you did when you entered the world? What’s the last thing we will all do as we exit? You got it? That’s right. We breathed. We filled our lungs with oxygen. We were alive. Even before letting out the first cry to announce our arrival, we took a deep breath. Breathing is that rhythmic, mystical process by which we bring in life-giving oxygen to drive our bodies and brains. It’s also the means of eliminating life’s toxic by-products. When we do it well, we thrive. When we do it poorly, we suffer.
The pivotal role that breathing plays in our lives is captured in many phrases and idioms. Before you start a daunting task we say, “Take a deep breath”. We wait “with baited breath” for important news. If we surprise somebody, we “take their breath away”.
Subconscious reflexes control breathing. Inspiration is an active process driven by the diaphragm and chest muscles. Expiration is passive; the lung collapses using elastic recoil. The center that controls breathing is situated at the base of the brain, a highly protected region of your body. Chemical receptors detect the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. If this accumulates, breathing is stimulated. Most importantly, you have the ability to over-ride the autopilot. This makes breathing unlike the body’s other automated functions.
We have two major players in our central wiring. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for spurring us into action. The “fight or flight” response is critical for survival. Our ancestors had to run to eat and to escape being eaten. When the sympathetic nerves fire, we increase our respiratory rate, pumping our lungs to supply more oxygen to fight or take flight. It becomes hard to fill our lungs when we work them so fast; our breathing becomes shallower. The opposite response is driven by the parasympathetic nervous system. When these nerve signals dominate, we are lulled into deep relaxation. Our breathing becomes slow and deep. In this state, our metabolic demand for oxygen is low, and the lungs default to deep, rhythmic breathing.
As early humans, we fired up our sympathetic systems for short bursts only. We needed to dash for cover, or sprint to catch the ostrich for dinner. Modern living places a totally different demand on us. The stress of daily living induces long-term low-level activation of stress hormones, triggering tense muscles, a hyper-alert mental state, and (you guessed it) shallow, rapid breathing. Think of some of the worst moments of your life. Stuck in traffic. Working 7-day weeks to meet a looming deadline. Arguing with a loved one. In each of these you can feel the tension in your body, especially your chest and neck muscles. If you observe closely, you will notice that you almost splint your chest, holding it rigid as a wooden barrel. This has serious health and behavioral consequences.
Understanding this science affords us authority. Breath control becomes a powerful means of managing stress. With practice and experience, you will be able to control your breathing, slowing it and deepening it, counteracting your stress. Through this intervention alone, you will be able to shift your unhealthy physiological responses towards more balanced, positive ones. Not only will you be healthier, you will also be better able to manage the problems that tightened you up in the first place.
One of the pioneers of mind-body medicine is Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. He described the “relaxation response”. This is the opposite of the “fight and flight” response. He and many other scientists have demonstrated the central role that breathing plays to induce the relaxation response. In the short term, we know that relaxation produces a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as affecting oxygen consumption and brain function. We also know that relaxation affects the actions of our genes. In the presence of relaxation, they instruct our bodies to produce proteins that enhance energy metabolism and immune function, and they suppress the production of a protein that plays a prominent role in inflammation. You will know from some of my other writing that excessive inflammation is at the root of many vexing health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and aging.
Now that you know that healthy breathing, even in the absence of disease, is of physiological and functional benefit, what should you do about it?
- Be mindful of your breathing: Notice your deep, healing breathing when you are relaxed. When you are tense, notice that you hold your chest, neck and shoulders tight. Your goal is to consciously calm your breathing, making it slower and deeper at times of stress.
- Breathe with your diaphragm: Babies start out by breathing with their belly. We shift over time to shallow chest breathing. At least 70% of the work of adult breathing should be done with your diaphragm. This huge muscle drives your chest like a bellows. Gas exchange is more efficient in the lower airways, so use your belly to suck air deep into your lungs. It also helps lymphatic drainage from the entire body and reduces pressure in your vascular system!
- Breathe through your nose: Your nasal passages are designed to prepare the air optimally for your lungs. The nose filters impurities, and humidifies the air, thus keeping the delicate mucus membranes of your lungs warm and moist.
- Exercise: Have you ever noticed how exercise takes control of your breathing? It’s good for other reasons too. You have to increase your breathing rate to exercise. More importantly, take advantage of the recovery period. When the metabolic demands of your body decline, force your breathing back down to the long, slow, abdominal breathing pattern that is healthy for you, rather than the nasty, shallow, stressed breathing you had before you went for your exercise.
- Sit and stand up straight: By hunching over, you force the contents of your abdominal cavity up against your diaphragm, inhibiting abdominal breathing. Not only do you feel better, but you also breathe better when you attend to your posture.
- Practice healthy breathing: There are many places to find advice on breathing exercises. In principle, you want to concentrate on exhalation. You want to stretch exhalation to empty your lungs. Follow this with a deep abdominal breath that fills your lungs and body with oxygen and life. And so on ….
- Read: As you practice breathing, read more at this blog and others about stress and relaxation. I commend to you the work of Dr Benson and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.
I will never forget a lesson taught to me by a very tough, but kind horseback riding instructor. I was training on a new horse, fresh off the train from the plains of the Midwest. He was strong and energetic, but unschooled. I had been thrown from his back twice as I tried to force him over 4 foot jumps. To add insult to injury, Ardeth yelled at me from across the arena with the most elementary advice. “Roddy, you’re not breathing! Why are you not breathing?” In that painful moment, I realized how powerful it was to breathe. As I filled my lungs deeply, I relaxed my shoulders and arms. My hands became gentle on the reins alleviating the pain in the horse’s mouth. I sat low in the saddle, following the horse’s movements with my own body, as though one. My legs released their vice-like grip on the belly of the horse. Instead, they held him gently and nudged him forward. The horse’s body relaxed, he broke into a smooth, even canter, and we sailed around the course.
What was true for me in the saddle is true for us all in life, in BodyWHealth!
Photo Credit: I am honored that Lisa Dearing allowed me to use this beautiful, award-winning photograph of wild mustangs. They capture for me the natural power and freedom we secure as we learn mastery of our BodyWHealth, and are immediately relevant to the point in time that I learnt the power of breathing. Please visit her website to enjoy more spectacular images!!