Conscious breathing: The how, why and meditation of breath.
We know we need to breathe to survive… but just as with everything else in our lives; it’s not what we do, but how we do it.
Our modern daily lifestyle exposes us to all sorts of stressors, which have an impact on our breathing, mind and body, affecting our health in a big way.
Habitually living in a ‘fight or flight’ state of mind puts the body under constant stress, and in this state of mind the body can’t differentiate between something life-threatening, and something we just find ‘stressful’. Society may have come on leaps and bounds, but our minds and bodies are yet to evolve so quickly. If we’re under a lot of stress, the body still assumes it’s a life or death situation and this changes things biologically; hormones, cell communication and chemical impulses designed to help repair cells, strengthen the immune system and keep us in general good health are shut down – after all, if the body is dealing with life and death, preventing illness or recovering from pain is no longer an issue. The body’s first concern now is immediate survival on a primitive level.
So is it surprising then, that as stress levels rise, so too do the levels of serious illnesses and the dependency on prescription medication to keep us in balance?
Not really, no….
But there are ways to change things and return to our natural, healthy state of being.
When we’re under stress, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. This indicates to the body that something is wrong, and the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response is heightened. This overrides the parasympathetic nervous system, which generally helps to keep us in a state of homeostatis and helps the body to repair itself.
Habitual or ‘unconscious’ breathing tends to be closer to the way we breathe when we’re stressed than when we’re relaxed. The short, shallow breaths put the nervous system on edge, unsure of whether to put our energy into basic survival or healing and optimal health. Unconscious breathing (the type we do most of the time) is controlled by the primitive part of the brain – the medulla oblongata -, whereas conscious breathing activates the more evolved areas of the brain and the cerebral cortex. Stimulating the cerebral cortex has a big effect on our emotions, and helps to relax the nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. In essence, conscious breathing helps to not only calm the mind, but to also heal the body. Conscious breathing tells the mind and body that it’s ok to be calm, it’s ok to let go of unnecessary tension.
Yoga focuses on conscious breathing – both with pranayama (‘breath control’ or ‘breath liberation’ depending upon your viewpoint’) techniques, and meditation. Physical yoga practice also goes hand in hand with conscious breathing; we move in co-ordination with inhales and exhales, which connects the body, breath and mind and allows us to tap into a deeper level of consciousness than that we may experience in every day life. The word yoga means ‘union’, and by moving with the breath, all areas of our being are connected or ‘united’.
Conscious breathing is a meditation in itself; try focussing on taking long, deep, controlled inhales and exhales for a while … and feel the effects. Use conscious breathing to get through seemingly stressful situations and challenges and you’ll soon begin to witness how much the ‘simple’ act of breathing effects our whole state of being.
“Breathe, breathe in the air.
Don’t be afraid to care…”
– Pink Floyd