The benefits of proper breathing are both physical and mental, yet many of us don’t do it. When did you last check in with your breath?
I’m a naturally stressy person (or a curious and excitable perfectionist, if you want to look at it differently) and it’s very easy for me to have many things on the go and no time to do them all, especially not to the standard that I’d like.
It’s usually when I’ve said yes to one too many things and I’m butting up against deadlines that I’ll catch myself shallow breathing.
What’s become apparent is that the shallower my breath, the less effective I am at getting through tasks and hitting those deadlines.
Have you forgotten how to breathe?
I remember a mindfulness class that I attended a few years back following a period of what might have looked from the outside as being close to burnout.
During the class we did a breath awareness exercise, the sort of exercise you’ll often come across in yoga and meditation classes.
Briefly, the exercise involved placing one hand on the belly and the other on the chest, and observing the state of the in and out breath. This particular mindfulness exercise was not about trying to alter the breath in any way.
And it was during this exercise that I realised just how shallow my breathing was, and just how tight my belly was. I’d clearly only been stretching during the recent yoga classes that I’d been to, not actually practising true yoga.
Do we really need to learn to breathe?
Of course, on a very basic level our bodies know how to breathe.
The breath is what starts our journey in the world when we gasp in and utter our first cry after birth; it’s what keeps us from losing consciousness and dropping dead.
Our breath will accompany us the whole of our lives.
So if breathing is such a given, why even examine it? Is there such a thing as good and bad breathing? Should we just observe the breath or are breathing exercises recommended?
There are two schools of thought here: mindfulness says be aware of the breath and don’t try to alter it. It will change naturally as you bring awareness to it. No need to force it.
The teachings of yoga, on the other hand, say that by manipulating and working with the breath, optimal health and wellbeing can be achieved.
My own experience tells me that it’s worth checking in with the quality of my breath every now and then. Sometimes it’s enough to observe it and sit with whatever type of breathing I’m experiencing. At other times I find that consciously choosing to alter it – for example extending the out-breath – is exactly what’s needed.
This personalised approach is what I suggest to my sister when she’s feeling bleurgh or experiencing anxiety in her life. It’s what I recommend to you too. Do what you need to do.
What are the physical benefits of proper breathing?
The reason we might want to improve our breathing is that it can help us to feel better and perform tasks more effectively. The extended out-breath, for example, activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn leads us to feeling less stressed.
Other types of yogic breathing exercises have other benefits but overall they aim to improve the quality of our natural breath so that it is efficient.
And efficient breathing is said to increase the oxygen saturation of our lungs, thereby providing more oxygen throughout the body. This in turn directly and indirectly provides more energy to the cells, tissues and organs of the body.
Efficient breathing is therefore more likely to reduce fatigue and the build-up of lactic acid, which results in muscle soreness.
Proper breathing also helps to exercise our muscles, specifically the diaphragm, the abdominal and pectoralis muscles. Exercising the diaphragm keeps it healthy and strong to work optimally by itself. Not just working okay, but working optimally.
Mental benefits of breathing properly
And all this benefit to our body of course benefits our mind too. We feel less stressed. We have greater mental clarity. We might experience a hightened sense of wellbeing.
That mindfulness class brought me back to my breath, reminding me to hold on less tightly, to loosen my stomach, to breathe deeply.
As my body relaxed, so did my mind.
When did you last check in with your breath?
References and further resources
- Kaminoff L and Matthews A. Yoga Anatomy. 2nd ed. Human Kinetics: The Breathe Trust; 2007.
- OpenGround Training and Consulting. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: A Resilience Training Coursebook. 8th edn. 2016.
- Clarke, J. Yoga International. Soothe Your Nervous System with 2-to-1 Breathing. //yogainternational.com/article/view/soothe-your-nervous-system-with-2-to-1-breathing. Accessed 01 February 2019.