Our breath sustains us and gives us life. It’s easy to forget how powerful it can be to energise and calm us. Let’s look at how we can utilise our breath for improved health and wellbeing.
In and out. We rarely have to think consciously about our breath to function. That’s because our breathing is taken care of by our autonomic — primarily unconscious — nervous system (ANS). Unlike other visceral functions like digestion, it can also be regulated voluntarily. Yet, because it’s mostly done involuntarily, we often forget the power our breathing holds.
Inhaling provides our body, organs and cells with vital oxygen and exhaling detoxifies our body. 70% of the body’s detoxification is done as we exhale carbon dioxide and other waste products. Respiration (breathing) is fundamental to our existence.
Breath and physiology
The quality of our breath affects us, body and mind. The ANS, which is responsible for our breathing, is composed of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems which both regulate vital functions.
When breathing is short and rapid, the body assumes we’re stressed and triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Our muscles tighten, heart rate increases, breathing accelerates and stress hormones are released in preparation for fight or flight.
The parasympathetic nervous system counterbalances the sympathetic. It’s our state for rest and relaxation. Lower heart rate and blood pressure diverts energy to functions like digestion. Slowing down and steadying our breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system. Decreasing our heart rate reduces feelings of stress.
Breath and mind
Automatic breathing requires no attention but voluntary breath has the power to calm the mind as it involves focus. Breathing mindfully, we can anchor ourselves in the present moment. By slowing down and intentionally paying attention to our breath, we’re not thinking about other things. Attention easily drifts away from breathing and can return to thoughts concerning us but we can train ourselves to go back to our breath over and over again. This helps us to relax and avoid negative or anxious thoughts. Our breath is always available to calm us, centre us and ground us.
Breathing mindfully is proven to decrease anxiety and depression, reduce negative thought patterns and even to help with pain relief. Yoga and guided meditations are great ways to learn to use your breath. Our exhale is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system (the good one that makes you feel calm). Making your exhale a little longer than your inhale can help us feel a sense of calm. Try this simple breathing exercise to feel the power of your breath, it may be helpful to ask someone to read it out to you.
- Resting quietly and comfortably, take a moment to become aware of your breath.
- Feel the rise and fall of your chest.
- Scan your body for areas of tension and direct your breath there.
- Take slow, deep breaths through your nose for a count of 4 and exhale for
- Imagine the inhale as a wave of much needed energy and the exhale carrying away negative thoughts.
- Inhale for the count of 6 and exhale for the count of 8. Do this a few times.
- On your last exhale, take the opportunity to sigh loudly, letting go of any negative feeling and emotions.
How did this feel? Has it been a while since you focused on your breath? How do you feel now that you’ve done it? More relaxed? Increased clarity of thought?
We underestimate how healing and restorative breathing well can be. Take some time to get used to breathing mindfully, do it daily and see how good it feels.