We inhale and exhale about 20,000 times a day (more for children, less for adults), yet how often do we notice this essential life force?
In 2015, an Australian surfer, Mick Fanning, was attacked by a huge shark in J-Bay in South Africa (known for its sharks). As the shark attacked, it caught the leg rope, pulling him under, and also winding it around its snout. The rope probably felt like a noose, an attempt to capture it. The shark switched from fight to flight mode, (much to the relief of Mick Fanning). Aerial shots taken just moments after the attack, show apparently clear blue water, no shark to be found. As long as 3 hours after the attack, you can hear still Mick gasping for air as he speaks with the media. We all knew from the sound of his breath that he had been almost frightened to death.
“Breath is the rawest connection between our emotional and physical bodies – we instinctively assess a person’s feelings by the way they breath” Lee Carsley, Founding ANZA WanderingYogi
University studies in US and India have shown that regular practice in breathing (pranayama) improves lung function (great news for asthma sufferers!) in as little as 10 weeks. It significantly improves our mood because the brain is the first affected by changes in oxygen levels. The more oxygen we breathe in, the better we feel. If we don’t breathe deeply enough, we become mentally sluggish, start to think negative thoughts, even become depressed
What is breathing?
We breathe to exchange carbon dioxide (toxic if allowed to build up) in our blood for oxygen in the air. This occurs thousands of times a day – making breathing the most singularly effective toxic waste removal activity of our body. Just think, how many green smoothies you would NOT have to drink if you could breathe consciously and powerfully!
How do we breathe?
Our lungs are not muscles and cannot move on their own. They need the surrounding muscles for us to breathe. We have three breathing choices.
Firstly, we can use the muscles of the neck and upper torso (clavicular breathing). Breathing with these muscles results in only small amounts of air. Most commonly seen in people who have lung illnesses, or asthma. Not that good.
Second, the muscle bands known as the intercostal muscles that lie between the ribs. This chest breathing seems natural for most of us. These muscles do give our body and lungs aerobic conditioning, but….
As we go about our day, chest breathing is considerably less dramatic—the ribs simply rise and fall with inhalation and exhalation, little air going in and out of the lungs.
Thirdly, we have diaphragm breathing. Diaphragm muscles create the greatest amount of control over our lungs. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle lying horizontally inside the torso. This is the muscle we tend to use unconsciously when breathing everyday, and therefore not very well. Being able to use your diaphragm muscles consciously is the secret to powerful life energizing breathing.
Breath comes in pairs…
We breathe in pairs, inhalation and exhalation. For most of us, inhalation is longer than exhalation. Much yogic pranayama is concerned with learning to control the way we inhale and the way we exhale. For example, if we control the breath so that each is the same and longer, this slows down metabolism, and calms the mind. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the calming part of autonomous system. If we decide that we want our exhale to be longer than our inhale (for example in Kapalbhati – a shatkarm or cleansing process), then we are using our breath to cleanse and clear our energy.
In yoga, we learn to breathe in different ways, preferably diaphragmatic and preferably through the nose because….
The moment you open your mouth to breath, your clavical and chest muscles automatically respond, activating your ‘fight or flight’ part of the nervous system.
Learning to breath through the nose, also helps build strength in our breath energy, which also helps with snoring (can I hear some cheers from the beleaguered mate that has to tolerate the snoring of their other half?)
And every move you make…
Find a place to mindfully breathe every day. Many of us do not have the luxury of a private meditation space, so as one of my meditation teachers suggests, use what you have around you. A chair, the bed (provided no one else is in it), the bathroom. Do this exercise first thing in the morning, after you have gotten up and refreshed yourself and before you eat.
Sit up, back straight, arms relaxed, hands somewhere resting comfortably in your lap. Close your eyes, and being to breathe. In and out through the nose. Listen to your breath as if it is the only sound in the world. 5 breathes in their natural, raw expression. Now, begin to count the inhale and exhale. Make the count for both the same. Once you have the rhythm going…..
As you inhale, gently expand your tummy out. Place your hand on your tummy to make sure you are not sucking the tummy in. Feel the breath on the tip of your nose, moving down your throat, across your shoulders down your back to the bottom of your butt. On the exhale, feel your tummy relax. Imagine the breath continuing its travel, circumnavigating your perineum and coming up past your tummy to your heart. Do it all again.
3 – 5 minutes each day, and you are well on the way to a brighter, calmer you.
“If we know the art of breathing, we have the power of ten tigers” – old Chinese proverb
An edited version of this article appeared in the September 2015 edition of the ANZA Magazine, Singapore.