THE POWER OF BREATH

BY MARIA MACAYA

Breathing, walking, talking – they are all things which we use everyday. We begin to breathe when we are born, walking and talking come thereafter. Once we have started doing it, we are seldom taught how to do it properly. We are told how to write cursive within the lines, how to eat with our mouth closed, how to put the Lego pieces together, but rarely are we told how to speak from our belly without forcing the vocal chords, how to press the sole of the foot down as we walk or run without causing unnecessary strain on the knees, how to breathe to full lung capacity.

Breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system – the ANS. Those are the body functions that happen naturally, without our conscious effort: breathing, heartbeat, digestion and the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The last two, lesser known systems, are the ones that control our response to stress or to tranquility – the sympathetic system is also known as the “fight and flight” and is the one that prepares the body for stress or danger by speeding up the heartbeat, bringing blood to the muscles, shutting down digestion, hunger or thirst. The parasympathetic systems is the opposite, it is the “rest and digest” system and becomes activated when we are at peace, without stress, dangers, or worry. It probably is unnecessary to say, that modern urban life gives fewer and fewer opportunities for the parasympathetic system to become activated. In the past, the sympathetic system required one of those rare days when a bear appeared to become activated. Nowadays, it becomes activated on a daily basis by the speeding car, the moody boss, the last terrorist attack and so many other small and large events that keep our minds on alert and our bodies along with it.

Getting back to breath – what is the power of breath? Out of all these ANS systems, the breath has one peculiarity: Like all other ANS systems it works on its own – more or less efficiently – whether we like it or not, but unlike the other systems breath can also be controlled and regulated. We can tell the breath to pause, speed up, slow down, lengthen, shorten, and with more or less effort and with better or worse results – that can depend on our training of it – the breath will do what we ask it to do. Furthermore, and interestingly, if we consciously regulate the breath, we can create an immediate impact on the rest of the ANS systems. If we breathe slow and deep as though we are relaxed, the parasympathetic system will take that as a cue and slow down the heart rate, improve the digestive process and allow us to rest at peace. If on the other hand, we speed the breath up, shorten it – the sympathetic system will read this as a warning sign that danger is imminent and adjust the rest of the bodily functions accordingly.

So we suggest trying the following – sit on a chair or lie down and close your eyes. Now, connecting with your breath try to breathe through your nose and to slow down the rhythm of the breath. You may place one hand over the abdomen and another one over the space of the heart and try to let each inhale pass through both of those spaces. Another excercise is to lengthen your exhales. Count the length of your inhale and try to make your exhale twice as long as that inhale- sometimes it helps to say aaaahhhh or ooooohhh with your exhale to make it last longer and to let a little more of that stress out of the system.