Breathe: Both Art and Science
Updated: Oct 15, 2018
It is often stated that breathing can help to alleviate stress, control psycho physiological states, induce relaxation, and improve organ function. While it may seem like more new aged mumbo jumbo, when in fact it’s actually an old art. It might be a little difficult to think of breathing in this manner, because it is something that happens so naturally. Honestly, when was the last time you thought about breathing?
Unless you’re some sort of musician, speaker, poet, or athlete more than likely it has been a while if ever. That is because respiration (the exchange of gas in the lungs) takes place as a part of the autonomic nervous system. Meaning, similar to the way your heart continues to beat on its own, you will continue to breathe without thinking about it out of a bodily need. And like many other autonomic bodily functions, breathing can be disrupted by fatigue and prolonged sympathetic stimulation (aka stress). To gain some insight into it the art, one must understand some of the science behind it.
Breathing, simply put is moving air to expand and contract the thoracic cavity, while respiration is the actual of exchange of gas in the lungs. Respiration occurs automatically as oxygen just so happens to be one of those things we need to live. Within the brain there is a respiratory center that monitors the body’s percentage of carbon dioxide, oxygen and acidosis in the arterial blood using chemo-receptors in the arch of the aorta and other arteries throughout. The respiratory center then sends signals to the medulla based off the metabolic data, saying increase or decrease ventilation (breathing). For example, during times of aerobic exercise when there is an increase of carbon dioxide levels, the signal is sent to speed up and deepen ventilation to increase oxygen. When you finish, instead of continuing to breathe hard, signals are sent to get you breathing normally again. Breathing takes place in two steps, inspiration and expiration. During inspiration, the diaphragm expands downward while the external intercostal (ribs) muscles pull upward and outward, opening the rib cage and expanding the thoracic cavity that much further. During this time, the air pressure in the chest cavity is lower than it is outside, and because air travels from areas of high pressure to low, the air enters the respiratory canals (nostrils, throat, larynx, and trachea) and travels to the lungs. During the phase of expiration, the diaphragm and the muscles that opened the rib cage will relax closing the chest cavity and forcing air back out. Like I said before, this is all automatic, but unlike many other automatic processes with a little focus and intention it becomes voluntary.
Voluntary breathing is what is happening when you are speaking, singing, playing an instrument, or in some cases exercising (i.e. yoga or swimming).Those that practice yoga already know how important breathing is. There is something called yoga breathing or Pranayama. The word pranayama is built around the root words “prana” (breath or life force), “yama” (control or discipline), and “ayam” (expansion). Pranayama loosely translated is the expansion of the life force through breath control. The 4 steps of breathing in pranayama are inhalation, internal retention, exhalation, external retention. All of the steps should take place in a controlled and focused manner. Through each step it is common to count to keep track of the length of each step, and ultimately increase the intervals. This type of breath training includes the ability to sustain relaxed attention on the flow of breath, to refine and control respiratory movements for optimal breathing, and to integrate awareness and respiratory functioning in order to reduce stress and enhance psychological functioning. Not only does this breathing have a direct impact on the brain through the changes of blood and oxygen flow, but also because of the focus it takes, there is a positive effect on the mind and concentration.
It is widely thought that the reason this type of breath control works is that the slow voluntary breathing actually resets the autonomic nervous functions activating the parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system, slowing certain physiological processes that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with cells that may be trying to reach/maintain homeostasis.That was just the long way to say it helps you to clear your brain and mind of the millions of tedious activities and various thoughts, helping you to find balance while bringing awareness back to the things that truly mean anything… Your health.
While I only mentioned yoga, “conscious” breathing routines are not exclusive to it. You can find it in many martial arts including Tai Chi (Supreme Ultimate), DahnMuDo (The art of being limitless) , Qi Gong (energy cultivation or working with life energy), and many others. I’ve taken a few classes in each of the disciplines above, and the thing that I learned or observed first in each was that my breathing (like many other untrained breathers) is shallow and erratic, and how to make it flow. I learned how important breathing with my diaphragm is; how a deep breath isn’t nearly as deep if you don’t know how to open your chest and expand your diaphragm into your abdomen at the same time. Remember the lower the diaphragm, the deeper the chest cavity, the deeper the chest cavity the lower the air pressure, etc. Many massage therapists like to consider your diaphragm, your own little massage therapist. It is the best organ in your body to help the heart move blood through the body and as it expands and contracts it compresses your other viscera aiding them in their functions also (i.e. digestion).
Bringing awareness to your breathing can relieve stress and tension, help improve bodily functions, anchors you allowing you to get out of your thoughts and remain in the moment, and is the best medicine for that fight or flight reaction. Something as simple as breathing can put you in the direction to better health. Did I mention that it’s pretty easy to learn to do?
To start abdominal breathing:
Find a space free of distractions.
Get into a relaxed position laying on your back or sitting up. (Laying on your back makes it that much easier)
Put your hands on your abdomen.
Close your mouth, touch your tongue to the upper palate of your mouth, and breathe through your nose (mouth breathing isn’t forbidden, just avoid if possible)
Inhale deeply and slowly feeling your hands rise with your abdomen.
At the end of the inhalation, exhale (do not hold air) and feel your hands fall again. Try to exhale all of the air and clear your chest cavity. Expiration usually should be about twice as long as inhalation.
Repeat for 5 to 10 minutes. Understand, sometimes one breathing lesson can spark a change in some people to change bad habits naturally, others it takes time. Just remember anything worth having is worth working for.