Heard this line in a commercial for some product and thought.....that's it! I need to write about breathing. I always teach that breathing is an involuntary action that the body does to stay alive and yet we've got some voluntary control. This ability to have some control allows us to also control some other systems we normally can't get at so easily - the cardio-vascular system for one, the digestive system, the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine, muscular, and perhaps the reproductive.
This is going to simplify some pretty complex activities in the body and I don't want you to think it is all so simple, but for the sake of understanding, let's simplify! Do an experiment: check your heart rate like you did in school (feel your pulse for 6 seconds and count the beats, then multiply by 10). Then practice a breathing technique where you simply make the exhale a little longer than the inhale for 2 minutes. Then check your pulse again. Most likely you'll find you have fewer beats. You've taken control of your cardio-vascular system!
How many of us suffer from constipation regularly? Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)? Other digestive issues such as ulcers? All are exacerbated by stress. How best to beat the affects of stress? A regular practice of some calming breathing technique (see below). Now, you are taking control of some aspect of your digestive disorders (look at diet as well). Nervous stomach causing you to make poor food choices or to skip meals? Again, try using a regular breathing technique to get the nervous-ness under control and get back to healthy eating.
Stress affects the immune system directly. Because the body reacts to stress as if it were an actual immediate danger, it decides to amp up some of the danger fighting systems and turns down systems like the immune system. Problem is, there is no immediate danger, it's just common, everyday stress. The brain and the body do not know the difference. So, you have to control the reaction until they do know the difference. Practice a breathing technique, so your immune system stays in high gear when it needs to be in high gear.
Think about your nervous system as a faucet. There's a hot water tap (this is the sympathetic nervous system). There's a cold water tap (the para-sympathetic nervous system). The sympathetic nervous system is turning on the responses the body and the brain need to function as it reads from the situation. Need to react quickly? It turns on the hot. Need to react to fear? Again, hot. Need some motivation? Some energy? Some fire? The sympathetic nervous system has you covered. Now, when you no longer need the reactions of the sympathetic nervous system, the para-sympathetic steps in and turns on the cold. The 2 work together in what we hope is a nice harmony. However, many factors cause dis-harmony - trauma, addiction, stress, injury, mental illness, physical illness, and much more. You can control which tap you turn on to some extent by using the breath!
The endocrine system is our hormones. Now, what I have been saying so far is pretty simplified and I am really going to simplify now. Whatever you are feeling and I mean physical, emotional, and mental feelings are all a cocktail of hormones and bio-chemicals doing their thing in your body right now. You can learn to control, to some extent, what chemicals/hormones are released with breath work. Add some imagery, visualization, and other techniques and you'll go even further! Inhale, say I am calm. Exhale, say I release fear. You get the idea.
In yoga class, I often suggest that we use the breath to release the hips or the abs or some other muscle, tendon, or ligament. A long relaxing breath does help the muscles release tension. Many long relaxing breaths combined with a stretch and literally get you farther than you have gone before! To come into a fully relaxed state, as in savasana, we always start with the breath.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on the reproductive system, because it is pretty related to the endocrine and a few others, but let's address some common experiences. In Lamaze class women are taught to breathe in a certain pattern to get through labor. When sexually aroused, the breath changes, as arousal moves through cycles, the breath adjusts. Suffice it to say, experimenting with breath and the reproductive system in ways that you need, may get you some good results.
Because the body is so inter-related and works as a whole system, if you change one system in a positive direction, you are affecting the other systems as well, so while it is beneficial to see these systems separate for the sake of analysis, the separateness is a farce. We are one big, diverse and yet completely connected, complicated wonderful creature! And, for the sake of this creature, practice safe breath!
Here are some beginning techniques:
Mindful breathing: Sit for 5 min. or as long as you can and just follow the breath. Hear and feel it.
Relaxing breath: Observe the breath as in mindful breathing, but count how long you inhale and how long you exhale. Then lengthen both, but make sure the exhale gets longer then the inhale by 2-3 counts.
Belly breath: Breathe in to belly as if it were a balloon you were filling with air and let the air out on the exhale, pull the belly button back to the spine to complete the exhale. Now, the breath is not in your belly, obviously, it is the diaphragm that is in your belly. But, breathing deep into the lungs to drop the diaphragm helps you relax. Once the belly breath is mastered fill the belly and then fill the lungs all the way to the collar bones.
5-7-8 breath: This, too, could be considered a little above beginner, but is so wonderful. It contains retention techniques, so make sure you are able to do the relaxation breath above first and be careful if you have high blood pressure when retaining the breath. Breathe in for 5, hold for 7 and breath out for 8. Do 4 cycles.
Start with these, practicing the breath of your choice at least twice per day. You can then move up to 4x per day.