Did you know that how we feel emotionally and physically at any moment in time shows in how we are breathing?
Did you know that 70% of our body’s detoxification process occurs through our exhalation, yet most people only breathe 30% of their lung capacity?
Did you know that our breathing is the only physiological function that we can voluntarily control if we want?
Did you know that using our breath is the most direct method to not only counter the effects of stress, but to respond to stress better, in the first place, as we’re experiencing it?
More than ten years ago, when I began to explore the power of breath for improving our quality of life this field of study outside of yoga and meditation circles was sparse with interest. As I deepened my knowledge of how significant the role our breath plays in how we feel, and learned to apply practical techniques into my daily life, I believed I had discovered something very special and unique, and couldn’t understand why “breathwork” wasn’t a household term. With great satisfaction I am pleased to see breathwork and the use of breath, as well as a general understanding of its value penetrating the mainstream. Prominent figures in the health and wellness arena such as, Dr. Andrew Weil, Robert Fried, Ph.D, and Deepak Chopra MD, to name a few have made formal breathing practices an important aspect of what they advocate. Today, it’s not only yoga and meditation teachers giving instruction on better breathing, mentioning nose breathing versus mouth breathing and it’s effects, but also fitness and athletic instructors of all types. There still is more opportunity however, to increase our knowledge and everyday use of our breath to improve our health and the quality of our lives. I not only use breath within the practice of yoga, meditation, and with my hypnotherapy clients, I use breath as a tool to promote better sleep, authentic relaxation, emotional and physical healing of all types, better fitness, focus, concentration, conscious stress reactivity, and improved physical and mental energy management.
What caused our breathing habits to decline in the first place?
The way we breathe is the direct result of what we experience emotionally and physically in our environment, past and present. Our respiratory center located at the base of the skull relies on information funneled through our five senses to know the alleged appropriate method of operation and response. Although there are many factors, to put it simply the diaphragm, that essential muscle that enables our lungs to function properly seizes in reaction to negative environmental stimuli. We can easily recognize how this occurrence begins at birth or even before. If we suddenly experience a loud crashing noise, or respond to brake lights in front of us while driving, or are challenged by being summoned to our boss’ office, these events negatively affect how we breathe. This is a stress response. As infants and later as children this defense mechanism, holding our breath in the extreme, altering our natural breathing pattern in the mildest form, becomes habitual and begins to undermine our health. The accumalative effects of shallow breathing over time through the years can be devastating to our health and well-being. The underlying physical and emotional anxiety becomes “normal” to us, and we believe we must accept how we feel as a normal part of life. It’s only later when the doctor tells us we have hypertension, or some other stress related illness, or our psychologist tells us we need a vacation from our problems, or need to go on medication, or our romantic partner tells us we’re impossible to be around, that we might realize how we feel is not normal.
When we learn how to breathe more like we did when we were a baby the difference becomes quite obvious, because we feel better and notice how we don’t necessarily have to fall victim to the events we face each day in our environment, whether at work, at the gym, on the subway, in traffic, or at the dinner table.
By definition, “stress,” specifically our unhealthy response to stress, results in the “sympathetic branch” of our autonomic nervous system becoming overly active. In our society today our bodies are constantly on “red alert,” in “fight or flight.” This is a natural physical and mental response to stress, however, is not necessarily useful and actually becomes counter productive. It is a primitive response that dates back to our origin and can be illustrated using the image of primitive man protecting his home and family from the wild. The stress we experience today comes in the form of mental stress causing the same primitive physical response. In other words, on a physical level we are unknowingly responding to modern day stressors like we did when our lives were literally being threatened.
The physiological state of “fight or flight,” the activation of the sympathetic branch of our nervous system does not support healing, recovery, or balance. One area of research makes the point that, “Cortisol is one of the hormones secreted by the adrenal glands. It’s secreted in response to stress. In moderate amounts, cortisol is not harmful. But when produced in excess, day after day—as a result of chronic, unrelenting stress—this hormone is so toxic to the brain that it kills and injures brain cells by the billions… …I believe, further, that cortisol toxicity is one of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease.” (Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD “Brain Longevity”) Blood vessels and arteries become distended reducing the flow of oxygen to the places we really need it, like our brains, and our organs. Over time the way we experience stress becomes “normal” to us. We are affected in many ways, such as poor digestion, irregular sleeping patterns, irritability, psychosomatic illness, oxygen starvation, hyperventilation disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease and other illness. In the boardroom we can hardly be at our best if our carotid artery leading to our brain is contracting, thus cutting us off from the flow of oxygen we need in order to function optimally.
On the other hand, the “parasympathetic branch” of our autonomic nervous system releases hormones such as serotonin, which supports physical and emotional homeostasis and healing. It is through the conscious experience of our breath that we can learn to activate what is known as the “relaxation response,” so we may feel at ease no matter what the outside world presents us. The image of a martial artist in combat, who is cool and calm yet highly effective, or the easily recognizable “zone” a seasoned athlete maintains during competition comes to mind. This focus and clarity, as well as, peace of mind and happiness is available to all of us through learning to breathe better.
If you would like learn how to use your breath to respond to stress and challenge in your life in a healthier and more functional manner, please click on schedule a session or contact us.