Take a moment on your own. While sitting or lying still, rest one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath or two, and then again consider your hands. Ideally as you inhale your belly expands and rises in an exaggerated way, and on the exhale the belly falls, all of which causes only the lower hand to move. This indicates that you’ve taken that breath deep into the lower part of your lungs - back and sides too - and moved that diaphragm. The top hand on your chest remains still.
This is the way we naturally breathe when we’re born (next time you are with a baby or toddler watch their little belly move with the breath) and it is this is kind of breathing that will best nourish the body’s cells with oxygen and improve our function on pretty much every level.
Hmm. Not what you’ve noticed whilst sitting there? Actually, me neither. At least not naturally and without a conscious effort!
According to the growing industry around the benefits of breathwork, a lot of us will instead witness the top hand moving, suggesting we are breathing shallowly and only into the upper chest, and into only a small proportion of the lungs. This is cutting our breath short and with it the opportunity to feed and bring our body what it needs. As we grow up and over time, responding to the stimuli and events of day to day life, our breathing pattern commonly shifts and we no longer naturally breathe in the way that serves us best.
Say what??? Totally too much to think about? I am inclined to agree. Until fairly recently, I never gave much thought, time or consideration to my breathing – at least not outside of exercise. It’s automatic. We do it in our sleep. And one thing in this world we actively don’t have to think about? Seemed like a winner to me.
But becoming just a little more aware of breath – particularly outside of exercise - does undoubtedly have its benefits.
I am not going to suggest we all take an hour a day to sit in a darkened room to do nothing but work on our breath (I’m not sure many of us have time for that right now!). But without delving too deeply into the bolder claims that ‘Conscious breathing’ can heal all systems of the human body, curing everything from cancer to infertility, it is fairly uncontroversial to say that the act of focused breathing is of benefit.
Fundamentally, we know all of our basic, natural cell activity throughout the body requires oxygen to function. When going through childbirth, we are told to breathe. If we have experienced some kind of emergency or crisis event, we are often encouraged to take a few deep breaths.
These are perhaps extreme, though not uncommon, examples of the body responding to stress. But amid a pandemic, stress of a different kind – though it looks different for each of us - is a reality we are all living with every day. Some days it might be more in the background than others, but it’s constant and currently its looks like it's not going anywhere for some time.
Negative stress caused by the external environment triggers a range of physiological responses. When we are stressed, scared or angry the breath becomes quick and shallow, our muscles tighten, and the body becomes rigid. The heart rate increases, blood is diverted to the brain to sharpen our awareness and the muscles are primed for fight or flight. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline begin to course through the body.
While this response is necessary mechanism to keep us safe, chronic stress can see continuously elevated levels of cortisol and other hormones increase blood pressure and suppress the immune system, which is definitely not something we are after.
When we can't change the environment, being conscious of our breathing is perhaps one of the most immediate ways to manage things for ourselves. It is one of the few tools we almost always have access to, and it is the only system of the body where we can take some active control (in a way we can’t tell our heart to stop or start pumping, or our stomach to start digesting our breakfast).
Focusing on the breath relieves a huge amount of tension and can activate the body’s relaxation response, which can in turn can reduce the overproduction of these stress hormones at times when they are not actually of benefit. This, as we know, lowers risk of stroke and other cardiovascular events. Relaxed breathing can is also good for digestion and general immunity, both of which are impaired by stress.
Sounds great, right? So what can we do get some of that good stuff??
As always, I believe small, realistic changes that can become routine over time are the ones most likely to stick. Yoga teacher and Breath Worker Rebecca Dennis in her book ‘And Breathe’, suggests just 5 minutes focused breathing a day can make a difference to energy levels, allow us time for that an important internal body scan, and ensure we are better equipped to respond to what each day might bring.
On simple and starter exercise she recommends is a Sivinanda Yoga Pranayama. Here it is:
Sitting comfortably in an upright position, close your eyes.
Draw in a long inhale through both nostrils for just as long as feels comfortable. Hold that breath for as long as is comfortable, and then exhale through both nostrils again for as long as is comfortable. Repeat this for 5 rounds. Pause and observe how you feel.
Try another round. Consider that the inhale and exhale do not need to be a particular length. Just make sure they are taken full, deep and without struggle. Consciously the relax jaw when holding the breath. Also relax the throat, neck, shoulders and abdomen. The more relaxed you are, the more likely you will be able to hold the breath for longer.
This exercise can be done seated or lying down in bed – maybe for 5 minutes first thing in the morning, at work, or anywhere or anytime you need to take a break. Essentially whenever you remember.
And for those less inclined towards the mindful and slower paced stuff, and more about the aesthetics? Regular focused full and deep belly breathing can help tone up those abs as well. So there is a happy bonus there too! 😉