Do you breathe properly? Are you even aware of the quality of your breathing? Breathing is something that occurs outside of our awareness yet can be so pivotal to our sense of health and well-being. Consequently, being conscious about the breath can really enable shifts to occur. In fact, there are many therapies that only focus on the breath cycle for the release of physical and emotional concerns; and of course mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation are centred on the breath.
The breath represents life and to breathe in is an act of accepting life. In addition, taking a breath involves an interaction with our environment – that which is outside of us. Thus, if we are resistant to what is happening in our lives often the breath tends to be a very shallow and superficial breath – into the top part of the lungs and not fully filling the lungs. Furthermore, if the world outside of us is perceived as dangerous and threatening there may be a tendency to also breathe in superficially.
The downside of this kind of breathing is that we may not be taking in enough oxygen and may not be letting go fully of the build-up of carbon dioxide and toxins that are released with the exhalation. This can contribute to dizziness, light-headedness, lack of focus and even a build-up of stress and inflammation in the body.
On a physiologically basis, when we breath shallow, short breaths this can relay to the body that we are in a state of stress as that is how we tend to breathe when under stress. The flip side of this is that deep, slow breaths communicate to the body that we are in a relaxed state. This deep breathing feels as if the belly is being blown up like a balloon due to the pressure of the lungs on the diaphragm. Knowledge of this physiological feedback is really useful as breathing can be used to tell the body to relax if we use the breath consciously, rather than letting our breathing hijack our sense of wellbeing due to our perception of circumstances. Next time you are feeling stressed, afraid or overwhelmed just stop and take a few deep belly breaths and your body will not be able to stay in the stressed state. It is also very useful to consciously breathe by focussing more on the exhalation than the inhalation. The more fully you breath out the more fully and deeply you can breathe in i.e. the more you let go and surrender to life as it is the more you are able to receive from life!
Returning to the consciousness of the breath and the emotional level of breathing – the more deeply we breathe the more we are able to get in touch with our emotions. This is also why many people are afraid to breathe in fully. However, the beauty of the breath is that, in breathing in fully to access the emotions (while also trusting in, receiving, and accepting life by breathing it in), the exhalation can be used as a powerful means of releasing and letting go of those emotions that are not serving us.
The exhalation also enables a surrender to the way that things are and this is a much softer, and less energy-sapping way of being. Holding on tightly to our emotions, needing to be in control and being afraid to let go generally results in a holding of the breath and never fully being able to recycle that breath and get some good quality, energy-giving oxygen into the lungs. We become very tired and ultimately even more emotional and tense.
A focus on the breath does not have to involve 20 minutes of pretzel-like posturing while omming with the breath (although this can be amazing should you ever wish to try it!!). Lately, with a busy life of two young children and a really busy practice I take my belly breaths in five minute servings, to refuel myself before moving on. This has really shifted things for me as it prevents the cumulative overwhelm and stress I have felt in the past. Even better, if you can be outside and ground yourself by connecting to the earth with bare feet, take those five minutes doing that and amplify the benefits.
Now, considering how empowering conscious breathing is perhaps you could take a few minutes to check in with your own breath and, while you are doing so, remember that you are choosing how to be with the life you are breathing in! Accept it and allow it (surrender) or try to hold on and control all that is happening?