Why breathing matters
Are you breathing? Are you sure? Take a deep breath in. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
When I was a freshman in college my roommate (who I still love and adore) would often be at her computer typing away furiously while I’d be on my uncomfortable twin bed doing homework. The *tap-tap-tap* of her fingers pulsated the sound waves that reached my ears. As a dancer (and as a neurotic individual) I would allow the melody of a noisy keyboard to turn into a rhythmic chant in my head. And then, every now and then, the typing would stop and then I’d hear it: A deep, loud sigh.
“aaaaaaaahhhhh….” Breathing brings peace.
It was as if my roommate’s body took the opportunity of a quick pause in the frenzied typing to gasp for some much needed air. The body is smart like that. It knows we need to breathe, even when we don’t take the time to remember it ourselves. Even at our extremes, our body is always breathing. If it stops… well, we die. So you can take comfort in the fact that if you are reading this, your body is doing its job. (Good job, body!) Heck, you can even try to stop this primal function by “holding your breath.” Eventually you will pass out. Your body is clever enough to avoid such personal sabotage.
Clever, body. Keep breathing.
So while it’s an automatic process, many of us are not breathing to our full potential. That’s why the simple task of tuning into your breath can be one of the greatest assets to your health and overall well being.
Deep breathing can help you deal with stress. It helps your cells get the “good stuff” they need to replenish and nourish themselves. It releases all the “not-so-good stuff” out into the world (which needs it). It keeps our bodies fluid and free. It keeps our connective tissue healthy and elastic. Yes, breathing is just about the best think you can do for your health.
Take another deep breath. Don’t worry about doing it “right.” Rather, just notice what you are already doing.
- Where in your body do you feel the expansion of the inhale? Or the release at exhale?
- Does your breath seem shallow and short or long and deep?
- Is there a natural pause in between breaths? Does that pause make you feel calm or anxious?
I’m not here to get into the actual anatomy of breathing, although, it is quite fascinating. If you have a good anatomy book, go ahead and read about it. If not, the internet is full of great resources if you are willing to sift through it. What I would like to provide today are a few simple questions to ask yourself, followed by some tips to help you find a better way to breathe (and a better way to be).
Consider your breathing pattern and ask yourself:
Are you a nose or mouth breather?
Especially during the “sick season,” making sure that you are breathing through your nose rather than your mouth is essential. Your nose is designed for breathing—with an important filtration system built right inside of your nostrils. Breathing through your mouth brings in all sorts of microscopic “foreign objects” and germs into your body. Plus, nose breathing engages your diaphragm and lower ribs, drawing the air deep into your lower lungs where oxygen absorption is most efficient.
Are you a chest or abdominal breather?
While it is true that the lungs play a vital part in the breathing process, if we don’t feel our breath in our belly we are missing a vital link to the overall process. The diaphragm is an important muscle in respiration. It is actually through the pulling down of the diaphragm (which causes the belly to move out) that allows the lungs to pull air in. If you watch a baby breath you will see the beautiful movement of the belly with each breath.
Where in your body do you feel tight or restricted?
Each cell in the body acts like a tiny lung. As your body pulls in oxygen it is carried through the blood stream providing the cells with the nourishment it needs. With its permeable membrane, the cell takes in the life-nourishing oxygen and then releases any unwanted “stuff” back into the blood stream which is carried back and breathed out as carbon dioxide. Understanding this allows us to realize that with each breath we can feel a sutble fluid motion in our entire body through our breath. Finding areas that seem tight or restricted and then “sending” our attention to those areas open up the flow of blood to nourish those areas.
- Lie down and place book on your belly. If the concept of belly breathing is a difficult one for your body, start simple. Lie down on the floor and rest a book on your belly. Don’t force the book up and down, but see if you can find a resting breath that automatically allows the book to float up and then down.
- Notice when your breathing habits change. The truth is that life is stressful. With stressful situations we have a tendency to tighten up and restrict our breath. Most of us know our situations that send us into that “fight or flight” mode. (Mine happens to be driving in the snow… blasted winter!) Being aware of tendencies allows us the opportunity for change.
- Take time each day to just focus on your breath. Providing ourselves just a few minutes each day to tune in and check out what’s going on provides valuable information and allows us the opportunity to change unwanted habits. I like to spend five minutes each morning, five minutes before bed, and (if I remember) a few minutes every hour while I’m at the computer. Close your eyes and breathe deeply as you turn on your computer, as your waiting in line at the grocery store, or when an annoying co-worker is bothering you. Small moments make huge differences.
- Place a hand on restricted areas. Imagine the cells of the body underneath your hand. As you inhale, picture the cells expanding to take in healing oxygen. As you exhale, imagine the cells releasing the unwanted tension or pain out of your body. Do this for 5 minutes and notice the difference.
- Take a yoga class. Body/Mind practices like Yoga, Tai Chi, Bartenieff Fundamentals, etc. are great ways to reconnect our breath back into motion. By considering the whole body and its connected systems, holistic forms of fitness are proving to be beneficial on many levels.
Try a few of these tips and let me know what works for you. And if you have your won tips, leave a comment below. Share the wealth!
And, breath out…
(top featured image by Maddie Joyce, Flickr)
This piece is from the “original” Thank Your Body Archives. Originally posted December 8, 2009. Updated and improved for your reading pleasure.