Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Would you like to have an accessible resource that you can use to reduce stress, help you to relax and sleep, boost energy and increase the wellbeing of your body and mind?
Well I have some great news – you already have one and it is right under your nose, aka your breath!
From the moment we are born to the moment we die, we breathe. Therefore if you are reading this article, then it is fairly safe to assume that you are breathing right now.
In fact, you are likely to take around 17,000 – 30,000 breaths each day, most of which you will be completely unaware of, as breathing is an automatic function of the body.
How is your breath at present?
Uncross your legs, if they are crossed, and place your feet flat on the ground. Sit up straight and let your awareness settle on your breath, perhaps focussing at the nostrils. Watch your breath as it comes into the body as you inhale, and leaves the body as you exhale.
Is your breath long or short?
Is your breath even or uneven?
Does your breath feel smooth or jagged?
Does your breath feel at ease, or does it feel somewhat challenging to breathe?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, as the quality of your breath will change day to day, moment to moment.
A first look at influencing your breath.
From sitting or standing, place your hands on your belly so that your middle fingers are touching:
Inhale slowly and fully into your belly, so that your hands begin to separate.
Exhale slowly and fully, so that your belly retracts, and your hands come back together.
Repeat 5 – 10 times.
This is called belly breathing, and is a good first step in learning to breathe more effectively. It is sometimes called baby breath. If you have ever watched a baby or puppy breathe, then you will have witnessed them unashamedly breathing in and out of their belly.
We have all been babies, and were all born knowing how to breathe, without having to get too involved in the process. But for many of us we seem to lose the ability to do it effectively somewhere along the way.
What gets in the way of the breath?
Factors like prolonged sitting, holding the belly in to appear slimmer, tension, stress, and being overly busy can all effect the quality of the breath.
In teaching and practising yoga, I have both observed, and experienced how the breath can be inhibited or held during a challenging yoga pose. Having spent 18+ years in IT Management, I also know first-hand that these poses are no different than challenging life situations where the breath can also be limited or held.
Equally, I have both observed, and experienced, the deep sense of relaxation and calm that a practice focussed on relaxing the breath can deliver.
In providing wellbeing in the workplace, I often see the effects that desk sitting has on an individual’s posture and in turn their breath. Rounding of the shoulders or sitting too upright can inhibit the breath considerably, and can also be linked to tightness in the shoulders and neck.
Holding the stomach in through sitting – or vanity! – will affect your breathing by limiting the movement of the diaphragm, which is the main muscle associated with breathing.
Intense negative and positive emotions influence the breath. Rapid breathing is often the companion of anger, frustration and anxiety. Relaxed breathing the companion of happiness and contentment.
Suffice to say that environmental, physical and emotional factors can play a significant role in influencing the breath.
The good news is that the same also happens in reverse. By influencing the breath, we can in turn influence our physical and emotional state.
What happens when we don’t breathe effectively?
Ineffective inhaling can reduce the amount of oxygen coming into the body. Every cell in our body needs oxygen to, amongst other things, produce energy. Without a constant supply of fresh oxygen, we are essentially robbing ourselves of our vitality and impairing cellular function that may lead to cell damage.
Ineffective exhaling can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that leaves the body. When the lungs have not been properly emptied there isn’t enough space for a full inhale. When the nervous system detects that there is too much carbon dioxide in the body it will signal the body to take another inhale to try and balance this out. This can lead to a cycle of the body not exhaling completely or inhaling fully. In other words, shallow breathing.
There are three main chambers to the lungs, and when we shallow breathe we only breathe into the upper extremities. Shallow breathing may result in the respiratory muscles weakening and losing the ability to function optimally. When this happens, shallow breathing may become our habitual way of breathing.
How does breathing work?
The process of breathing is a somewhat complicated one, but let’s break it down and take a less complicated look at how breathing works:
When you inhale or breath in
Your diaphragm, the main muscle associated with breathing, contracts and moves down.
Your stomach and lower back expand and relax to allow this to happen.
The space in your chest cavity increases, into which the lungs expand.
As your lungs expand, air is sucked in through your nose or mouth and makes its way into your lungs.
This air goes through branches in your lungs to fill up the alveoli, or air sacs.
Oxygen goes through the walls of the alveoli and into the capillaries where it enters the red blood cells in each blood vessel.
The blood carries the oxygen to the heart.
The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to every cell in the body.
When you exhale or breath out
As each red blood cell empties its load of oxygen, it picks up carbon dioxide from the cells and makes its way back to the lungs.
The carbon dioxide is carried by the red blood cells back to the alveoli ready to be emptied from the body when you breathe out.
To exhale your diaphragm relaxes and moves up.
Your stomach and lower back retract and contract slightly to enable this to happen.
The space in your chest cavity decreases. As the space gets smaller air is forced out of your lungs through your nose or mouth.
I was driving through a tight space recently and one of my passengers said, “breathe in everyone”. It occurred to me that, although I have heard this many times, it is actually incorrect. As you will have seen above, when you breathe in the body expands and when you breathe out it retracts. Next time you are in a tight spot say, “breathe out” rather than “breathe in” but you may need to be prepared to explain why!
Who’s Controlling Your Breath?
I mentioned before that you take a lot of breaths each day that you are mostly unaware of. This is because your breath is controlled by an aspect of your nervous system called the autonomic nervous system which, as the name suggests, works automatically.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two aspects, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. It is helpful to understand this system a little, in order to comprehend how we may essentially override it.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is often referred to as our fight and flight response. It is responsible for managing real or perceived short-term threats to our survival. When the SNS is engaged, stress response chemicals such as adrenalin and cortisol are released into our system preparing us for action. The SNS alerts our heart rate, blood pressure, clotting mechanisms and voluntary muscles to a high alert status. It also signals non-essential systems to slow or shut down, such as the digestive system, sleep, elimination, pain response and immune systems.
The SNS is a great system but, for the purpose of health and wellbeing, not one we want to be operating in too often or for too long.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is often referred to as our rest and digest response. It promotes optimal body functioning, maintenance, restoration and repair.
The PNS is the aspect of the nervous system we want to be spending most of our time in to support optimal health, wellbeing and longevity.
Your breath and the ANS
Under the SNS the breath tends to be more shallow, fast and at times furious.
Under the PNS the breath tends to be longer, smoother and calmer.
The same happens in reverse.
When the breath is shallow the nervous system can see this as a stressor in itself, and engage the SNS.
When the breath is relaxed the nervous system can see this as a signal to elicit the PNS.
I have heard it said that the breath is the remote control for the nervous system.
This means that if you actively calm and deepen the breath you can switch the channel of the nervous system from stressed (SNS) to relaxed (PNS).
Equally, if you are feeling a bit flat you can boost the breath to temporarily rev up the body and mind in a healthy way. Whilst this engages the SNS, think of this as stimulation or motivation rather than stress.
The same applies to the way you feel. A study by the Stanford University in of California, published in Science, identified 175 brain cells that continuously spy on the breath and will alter the state of mind accordingly.
Utilising the Breath
The quality of your breath can directly affect your physical and emotional state, and your vitality.
Conscious breathing has been used by those that practice yoga and meditation for many moons to fuel the body, enhance energy and elicit relaxation.
It is an accessible tool that is at your disposal when you need it, so it is worth learning how to get the most of it.
Here are some breathing exercises that you may like to try at home, to either boost energy or elicit relaxation.
Breathing practices that energise:
The following two breathing techniques work to increase oxygen and temporarily stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, invigorating and energising the body and mind.
Stand with a straight but relaxed spine and your feet hip distance apart.
Inhale through your nose as you raise your arms out sideways.
Exhale through your mouth as you bend your arms, and bring your elbows close to your ribs.
Complete 15 – 30 repetitions:
The Breath of Joy
The below version of the breath of joy is a great way to start the day, or for when you are feeling a bit flat and in need of an energy boost. Both of these exercises are carried out standing up, and are also a good way to interrupt prolonged sitting.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel, knees slightly bent.
Inhale one-third of your lung capacity as you lift your arms up in front of your body, bringing them parallel to each other at shoulder level, with palms facing the ceiling.
Continue inhaling to two-thirds capacity and bring your arms out to the sides to shoulder level.
Inhale to full capacity and lift your arms parallel and towards the ceiling, palms facing each other.
Open your mouth and exhale completely with an audible ha sound as you bring your arms back to the sides.
Complete 5 – 10 repetitions.
Caution: If the increase in oxygen makes you feel a little light-headed when carrying out either of the above practices, then stop the exercise. Or you may like to breathe naturally for a few minutes and then continue.
Breathing practices that elicit relaxation:
The following two breathing techniques work to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, eliciting a relaxed state where both the body and mind work more optimally.
Four Count Breath
Sit or lie with a straight spine and relax the face and the body, closing the eyes or gazing to one point.
Without changing the breath in any way, start to count the length of the inhale and exhale. Notice any difference between the inhale and the exhale.
Start to add a count to the breath so if you are inhaling for 4 counts can you also exhale for 4 counts. Take a few rounds to enable the breath to even out if needed.
Now see if you can start to extend the exhale by adding one count to the exhale, so if you are inhaling for 4 counts can you extend the exhale to 5 counts.
Continue to slowly extend the exhale by 1 count, working towards the exhale becoming double the inhale.
The breath should not be forced and if the exhale doesn’t become double the inhale that is perfectly okay. The exhale being longer than the inhale obtains all the benefits of the practice.
Let go of the count and allow the breath to return to its natural flow to complete the practice.
3 Part Breath
3 Part or Yogic Breath is an extension of the belly breath you practised at the beginning of this article. It develops the breath, enabling the three chambers of the lungs to be filled and emptied during each breath. This in turn relaxes the mind and body, oxygenates the blood and purges the lungs of residual carbon dioxide.
Sit or lie with a straight spine and relax the face and the body, closing the eyes or gazing to one point.
Place the palms of both hands on your belly with middle fingers touching. Notice how the belly rises on the inhale and compresses on the exhale. Breathe in and out of your belly for 10 breaths without forcing or straining the breath.
Now move your palms to the sides of your ribs and notice how much movement the breath creates here.
Continue to breathe into the belly, but now expand the breath into this mid-chest region, allowing the rib cage to expand to the sides with each inhale and retract with each exhale. Repeat keeping the breath smooth and without strain.
Bring your palms to the chest area just below your collarbones again bringing your middle fingers to touch.
Continuing to direct the breath to your belly and to your ribs, now also expand the inhale to the upper chest, allowing the chest to rise with the inhale and fall with the exhale.
Continue breathing in this way, directing the inhale to the belly, ribs and chest. Exhale from the chest, ribs and belly. Keep the breath smooth and without strain.
Release your hands to your sides and allow the breath to return to a natural flow to complete the practice.
How often should I practice?
It really is up to you.
You may like to simply practice the above exercises either when you need to boost energy, or to relax.
You may like to do them at the start or end of each day. The boosting energy practices are great to do in the morning to kick start the day. The relaxation exercises are great to do in the evening, to support relaxation and sleep.
If you would like to start to work at enhancing your natural breath, I would recommend starting by completing the belly breath a few times a day, and expanding this to the 3-part breath when you feel ready. When you practice these type of breathing exercises regularly it makes sense that you will be building the habit of breathing in this way more in daily life. As a way of building this into your day, I recommend completing 5 – 10 rounds before each meal. This has the added benefit of bringing the nervous system down which supports digestion.
Breathing is a powerful and accessible tool that you can utilise to reduce stress levels, help you to relax and sleep, boost energy and increase the wellbeing of your body and mind. And it is completely free!
Please see the following for this month's blog, written for Cytoplan: