How important is the Breath?
As a massage therapist and energyworker I am often asked by my clients what some of the best practices for healthy living are. The same question comes from a variety of people: ones who have battled chronic dis-ease, those who are encountering new health challenges, and others who simply want to feel better in a world where an abundance of poor choices are available at every turn. In my own healing journey I have discovered quite a few things that have a very real immediate and lasting benefit. We will begin this series of blogs with the breath.
The easiest and most effective one thing that everyone has control over and anyone can work to improve is breathing. Breathwork is a core aspect of many ancient traditions, all pointing to the importance of making this a primary focus of any conscious practice. The ancient Slavic, Greek, African, and European cultures show evidence working with the breath. A majority of Asian cultures still practice traditions involved with the breath and moving the lifeforce energy managed by it. Japanese and Chinese Medicines as well as Martial Arts all center practices around breathwork. There are a variety of yoga and Vedic traditions associated with various breathing techniques or breath-holding.
In modern societies and the fast-paced world in which we live, we have collectively become deeply disassociated from our breath. In my opinion, this has become a base level element contributing to imbalance in all the bodies (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.) Fortunately, it is one that we can center our awareness on relatively easily - and in so doing, begin to put it to better use for ourselves.
There are two parts of breathing we can become conscious of: lung and belly breath. The lungs control the flow of air in the upper torso, and the diaphragm controls the flow of breath in the belly or lower torso. In bodies that are subject to regular stress, fast-paced schedules, lack of exercise, and high levels of anxiety, tests reveal that quick and shallow breathing contribute and are a result of this cycle. Medical science agrees that one of the most effective natural ways to combat stress and anxiety are by deep breathing and focusing on and improving the belly breath.
In my experience, based on my own addiction with tobacco over the years, part of this habit is greatly associated with the breath. Sure, nicotine is one of the most addictive substances, so that alone contributes to habitual use. However, it is common knowledge that cigarette smokers often smoke when they are experiencing stress or anxiety. It is also common for cannabis smokers to take a deep inhalation of smoke and hold it briefly so the medicine is absorbed fully by the lungs. I believe part of these practices are due to the innate desire of the physical body to receive opportunity for deeper breaths and holding at either end of the inhale/exhale.
Deep, regulated, full and steady breaths are the pathway to working with your breath. If you dont have access to a breath coach, arent sure where to look online, or simply find it difficult to practice documented exercises - you can simply draw your awareness onto your breath. Feel what happens are you draw your breath in. What do your lungs and diaphragm feel like? What do you notice happening with your heartbeat and blood pressure? How is the oxygen affecting your state of being and your energy level?
I first began working with my breath on my own terms, simply becoming aware of my breath and my breathing patterns. When performing an activity or exercising I would slow my breath and create a uniform sequence of inhale and exhaling. After I became more practiced during activity, I would remain conscious of my breath during other less-active periods; during reading, while cooking, even brushing my teeth. Ultimately the place I was really able to focus solely on my breath and increase my ability to pump and put my breath to work in my body was during meditation.
Meditation and breath go hand-in-hand. Breath is one of the things I immediately turn to when I find challenge with my thoughts and/or dropping into a meditative state. For me, it is one of the quickest tools I can check in with to bring myself fully in-body. I have trained myself to feel each and every part of my body that is working to move the breath, as well as all the parts that are benefiting from the conscious regulation of it. With focus on the breath and so fully on the body, the thoughts become still, the body relaxes further, and my awareness opens more fully to all things in and around me.
The respiratory system of the body can be likened to a well and a water pump. Let's say we want to fill a 50 gallon drum. First imagine dropping a bucket into a well and pulling it up by the rope. We empty the bucket into the drum and continue this process. How many buckets might it take? How effective is the time used to crank the bucket up after dropping it into the well? Now let us shift our imagination to an electric pump being used to draw water from the well. Like a car engine pumps fuel, a piston pump draws water through a series of up-and-down or in-and-out movements, the same way our lungs and diaphragm work to circulate air through our bodies. The more fully the piston moves in either direction, the greater and more efficient the movement of water (air) becomes.
So lets apply this. Air and breath is slightly different, in that the body responds well to a slight pause at each end of the spectrum. At the end of an inhale, holding the breath before moving into the exhale - as well as holding the breath again before moving directly into the next inhale is preferred. Here is a basic technique that you can work with to improve your breathing pattern, reduce stress, clear your mind, and revitalize your energy.
I like to always begin with an exhale - fully releasing any of the current air, tension, anxiety, stress, and energy I am currently holding. I pause at the end of my exhale and then I gently exhale a little more (it is funny how when you think you couldn't possibly exhale any further, a short pause will allow you to.) Then I inhale slow and deeply. I play with the speeds at which I do this, but for beginners it should be comfortable and easy. A count of 8 seconds or so is great. At the fullness of the inhale, pause a few seconds (2-3) and take another small inhale. These short inhale and exhales after the pause is what helps expand the lung and belly capacity. Exhale as close to the same rate as your inhale as possible. If 6 seconds is more comfortable for you, begin here. After a few minutes of this deep cycling breathwork, see if you can increase each direction by another second or two. It's that simple!
As you begin to bring your conscious awareness onto your breath, you will notice different patterns at different times; during different activities, during different moods. The more we become conscious of our breath - the more space we allow ourselves over situations that we may be reactive or quick to respond to. Think of "Count to 10" when you're angry. I believe put in proper context this is likely referring to 'taking a breath' before responding. This would make sense because this is centering and is a powerful tool to remove one from the fight-or-flight survival response that today's brain is so captivated by.
By focusing on and becoming aware of one's breath, by expanding lung capacity and ability to bring rich oxygen into the body, brain, and other organs - one is grounded and centered, the lifeforce energy flow is optimal, the body mechanics that pump it is efficient and powerful, and one's consciousness is at the helm. From this fuller space, grace flows, patience is more accessible, and the bigger picture can be more readily seen. On the science side, greater oxygen intake and absorption is linked to reduction in inflammation and pain, boosted immunity, balance across other body systems, and is a huge part of cellular respiration and the breaking down of food into energy.
With modern science and tech often being used before or instead of natural things, it isn't hard to see why oxygen therapy is a thing. This is not to say that it doesn't have it's place and there are often times when tools like these can have great and immediate effect. Rather, my point is to begin with what nature does - or can do - by applying consciousness and practice. Exercise your right to breath fully and deeply. Happy 420 (Universal Breath)!