If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath. ― Amit Ray
Our breath is fundamental to life – an automatic process that, for the most part, we take for granted. It is only when we experience difficulties in this area, that the ability to breathe with ease is truly appreciated. Further more, research on exhalation has shown our breath to be completely unique to the individual – similar to a fingerprint; our breath contains a characteristic molecular “breathprint”.
Our breath is one of the most basic connections we have to our environment. Each time we inhale and exhale, we receive and give to our natural environment. This is a simple yet profound connection. We eliminate up to 70% of our body’s waste through our lungs. Clean air is vital to maintaining the delicate balance of life on our planet.
To Breathe Well is to Live Well
Our breath is connected to our emotional state. Have you ever noticed how your breathing changes when you feel anxious? We tend to take more shallow breaths when we’re nervous, and even shorter and faster breaths when we experience panic. When we feel tense we hold our breath, pausing at the top of our inhaled breath before we exhale again. Anger affects our breath by forcing long inhales and exhales. In a calm state we breathe slow and steady, and our breathing becomes shallower with relaxation, similar to when we begin to fall asleep.
Breathing is unique in comparison to other automatic functions of the body, in that it can also be regulated voluntarily. Techniques of using the breath to direct and improve the body’s energy, and aid in the release of emotions, dates back thousands of years.
To breathe well is to live well. We are all born with the mastery of breathing. As babies we naturally practice deep abdominal breathing. As we get older, stressful lifestyles and fear affects how we breathe. Breathing from the abdomen is essential because the blood in the lowest part of the lungs is rich in oxygen. This diaphragmatic breathing, or baby breathing, triggers the body’s relaxation response. If you are using your diaphragm well, you will see your stomach gently expand on the in-breath, and relax back down on the out-breath. Breathing shallowly and high from the chest is linked to many conditions, such as anxiety disorders, asthma and backache.
Our breath regulates our autonomic nervous system, promoting either the sympathetic (fight or flight) response or the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response. In the practice of Yoga, the Pranayama breathing techniques can shift the balance of the autonomic nervous system away from sympathetic dominance.
Pranayama, a traditional Yogic practice of slowing, extending and observing your breath, prepares the mind for the stillness of meditation. Meditation, or dhyāna in Sanskrit, is a key aspect of Yoga, the seventh of the eight steps of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. You can find out more about the science of breathing in Yoga here.
The Power of the Vagus Nerve
It is a common belief that we breathe with our lungs alone, but in point of fact, the work of breathing is done by the whole body. – Alexander Lowen
Both meditation and deep, slow abdominal breathing are linked to increased vagal tone. The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body, and supports everything from your health and well being to friendships and happiness. It travels all the way from the brain to the digestive system. This nerve works through the parasympathetic nervous system.
The strength of your vagus response is known as your vagal tone. High vagal tone improves the function of many bodily systems. Benefits include, better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, and improved digestion through optimal production of digestive enzymes.
It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior. When your exhale is even a few counts longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve is signaled. Breathing from your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
Transform Suffering with Mindful Breathing
Meditation, especially loving kindness meditation, which promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others, shows an improvement in vagal function. Click here to read more about the power that the vagus nerve holds for self-healing.
It is encouraging to know that, by using something as seemingly simple and powerful as our breath, we can heal our body and mind. When asked what his favourite practice was, the author, monk, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh replied:
There are people who say that I teach only one thing: breathing in and breathing out. They are right. With mindful breathing, we’re more present for ourselves and for the world. It helps us transform the suffering within and to be in touch with the inter-being nature of reality. So we only need to practice mindful breathing—that is enough.