Just breathe, the ancient magic in breathing
Let’s start with a short exercise, together we will try to hold our breath for 30 seconds.
As you have probably noticed breathing is an action that we take for granted, awareness for breathing only comes when a problem arises. This is not how it is supposed to be, breathing should be a tool for our use and benefit.
Breathing is a magical, simple and so necessary operation for the existence of our body, in which we collect oxygen from our environment. By virtue of being an automatic and natural action of the body, breathing does not require us to pay attention or put in an effort, but unlike other automatic actions like digestion, it is controllable and changes patterns of action through awareness and practice.
Simple daily breathing exercises can completely change the way we breathe and as a result create a radical change in the way our body functions, strengthens itself and copes with life experiences.
There is a wide range of evidence that proper breathing affects our mental and physical state, coping with stress and anxiety, and improvements in a variety of problems in the day-to-day functioning of the body.
The vast knowledge inherent in the breath has been known to man throughout history for many years. Ancient cultures have given tremendous importance to the effects of the breathing process on the body and the use of this amazing and simple tool.
The breath controls the life energy in the body known as Qi in Chinese medicine, or Prana in Indian culture. The healers in Hawaii were called the Masters of Breathing – Kahuna Ha. Before we understand how we can help the body with proper breathing exercises, it is important that we understand how the nervous system in our body works and how breathing is the tool that drives it.
How our nervous system operates
The body’s nervous system is a well-developed neural communication network through which the body functions as a controlled and coordinated unit and it exists in almost all animals. It is divided into a central nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord and a peripheral nervous system that connects through a neural network all parts of the body to the central system.
The peripheral system is also divided according to the types of nerve. Most of the nerves belong to the somatic nervous system which is responsible for voluntary actions and the rest belong to the autonomic nervous system which regulates the activity of the internal organs.
The autonomic nervous system is the one that supports the proper functioning of vital processes in the body and unconscious and uncontrolled actions such as heart rate, respiration (which can also be consciously controlled) digestion, detoxification, removal of dead cells and many other vital actions.
The autonomic nervous system is thought independent, it provides two needs and is divided accordingly into two subsystems:
- The sympathetic nervous system – is responsible for activating a fight or flight mode used for survival in the face of an immediate threat.
This subsystem knows how to regulate the work of only vital systems in order to deal with the emergency situation that threatens the survival of the creature. It controls the routing of blood flow to the various internal organs and their routing to skeletal muscles in order to provide them with strength and oxygen, stop digestive and urinary functions, adrenaline secretion, accelerate heart rate, constrict blood vessels and more.
This system is activated when the brain detects that the body is in a survival state whether it is an encounter with a predator in the wild or a nervous boss yelling at you, and begins to turn off subsystems that are not essential to the best of its understanding to deal with the impending threat.
- The parasympathetic nervous system – is responsible for activating a healing and maintenance state (Rest & Digest) in a routine when the body is at rest and not in danger.
This subsystem regulates the continuous physiological activities such as respiration and heart rate, is mainly responsible for conservation and maintenance activities such as waste and toxins removal, cell regeneration, increased digestive functions, increasing energy reserves and more.
This system is activated when the brain recognizes that the body is in a safe and restful state and begins to perform actions essential for the healing and maintenance of the body. It is like the cleansing system for the “clutter” that remains in the body after the work of the sympathetic system.
Our body responds to external or internal states that we go through and it is the breathing that produces the exchange and control between the two states. In a state of stress, the rate of respiration will begin to rise rapidly which will put the sympathetic system to work. In a state of relaxation our breathing rate will decrease and the parasympathetic system will go into action. The nervous system is a two-way highway and the information flows from the organs to the brain and vice versa. It has a direct effect on respiration and activation of various systems.
Working properly with our breath
Now that we understand how the body works, we can choose when to activate the subsystems we want the parasympathetic system in particular. With the help of various breathing exercises, it is possible to awaken and increase the work of this important system and help the body to heal and renew itself.
The average breaths per minute of an adult in the western world is 12-20. This is a high pace that encourages the work of the sympathetic system.
By adhering to a number of important principles and breathing exercises we can calm ourselves and release states of stress and anxiety before they take over our bodies, and encourage the work of the parasympathetic system:
- Low breathing rate
Fast breathe will make our body experience stress and slower breath will induce a state of calmness and relaxation. The optimal rate is 6 breaths per minute which means inhalation of 5 seconds, and exhalation of 5 seconds. In addition, various breathing exercises can be performed to release stress and negative experiences.
- Depth of breath and diaphragmatic respiration
The deeper the breath, the density of the air entering the depths of the lungs is higher and thus allowing for high oxygen absorption. For example, at a rate of 20 breaths per minute the new oxygen fills only the top of the lungs and allows absorption of up to 50% of the incoming oxygen. On the other hand, at a rate of 6 breaths per minute, the oxygen is well compressed al the way through the bottom of the lungs which allows up to 85% of the oxygen to be absorbed (the 15% that are not absorbed by the way allow oral resuscitation between humans). In addition, breathing should start from the abdomen or rather from the diaphragm in order to take advantage of the full capacity of the lungs to fill with air.
According to a theorem of a wise Chinese philosopher in 300 BC named Chuang tzu or Zhuangzi “The wisdom of a wise man comes from the heels while the other people breathe from the throat.”
- Breathing from the nose
Breathing from the nose is very important and is also an integral part of proper breathing.
If we examine the world of mammals to which we belong, we will find that breathing from the mouth is common to man along with domesticated dogs and farm animals.
The nasal cavity plays an important part in cleaning the incoming air and creating high air pressure. There are special exercises that help strengthen the breathing abilities from the nose and release the blockages.
Ancient Chinese and Native American cultures understood the great importance of nasal breathing and encouraged it from a very young age.
Through working on our breathing, we can create real change in our lives, in the way we make our decisions and our ability to deal with challenging situations. Breathing exercises can greatly help us to “take control” of our breath and use it as a tool that helps us heal.
Circular Breathing or Rebirthing is a great example of breathing practice that helps us unload past experiences and opens up a whole world of knowledge about our bodies.
Short daily breathing exercises like rapid diaphragmatic breathing from the nose or 4-7-8 repetitive exercises (4 seconds inhalation, 7 seconds holding, 8 seconds exhaling) from the nose will greatly help in unloading the experiences and stress of the day and instilling more correct breathing habits.
It sounds so simple and that is exactly why different cultures have realized the immense power inherent in such a simple and accessible action to everyone, breathing. You can learn how to control and improve the way we breathe and thus directly affect your daily function and help the body enter a state of increased healing. Continuous use of the breath will help us discover the amazing secrets hidden in each of us.