Breathing. We do it up to 30,000 times a day. Without it, life would not exist as we know it today. In yogic speak, the breath is ‘prana’ or life force. It is the sustainer of life and allows us to feel deeply connected to the sense of being. ‘Take a deep breath’, as they often say when you are deeply in the ‘moment’.
However it is the breath that also suffers when we are under stress. Our breath becomes shallower, more rapid and generally more inefficient from a bio-chemical perspective in terms of the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
However, unlike all other body systems such as the nervous, digestive, endocrine, lymphatic, and pulmonary systems, the respiratory system is both involuntary and voluntary. The fact that we can control our breathing is an important coping mechanism when dealing with stress.
Because when we are under a lot of stress, our body starts undergoing rapid changes and we enter the ‘flight or fight’ state, the effect being:
- our digestive system starts to shut down (toilet rush anyone);
- our pituitary gland starts producing cortisol and adrenaline;
- our blood pressure increases as the heart beats faster;
- ‘visceral’ body fat levels increase (especially around the waist as increased levels of insulin caused by the craving for sweet or salty foods, together with more cortisol pumping around the body results in the release of fatty acids from cells which end up as body fat in the abdominal area);
- our sympathetic nervous system is activated; and
- the neo-cortex (or critical thinking) part of the brain is disrupted.
Such stress is felt in every cell in the body. This in turn results in higher levels of oxidative stress in the body, causing free-radicals to be released, which act like scavengers. We’ve all heard the term ‘anti-oxidants’, which act to neutralise such free radicals. In short, too much stress is a bad thing and the effects are too obvious to be ignored.
So where does the breath fit in? As I mentioned, we have the ability to control our breathing. Adrian from the Now Project describes his technique of mindfulness as either “breathe in, breathe out”, or “breathe out, breathe in”. Simple huh?
In yoga, it goes one step further. By gently lengthening the exhale compared to the inhale, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which induces a relaxation response in the body. This is primarily done through the ‘vagus nerve’ which runs from the brain through the chest to the abdomen.
In fact, by deeply breathing: expanding the chest, the rib cage, the upper abdomen and lower abdomen, you actively tone the vagus nerve. For it is in the deepest part of the lungs where there is the richest blood supply, and therefore the place where the most efficient gaseous exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place.
The consequence? Your heart rate slows down, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline circulating around the body sink, your digestion returns to normal and you can start to THINK clearly again.
Being ‘cool, calm and collected’ then takes on a whole new meaning: Take a deep breath or two, seal the deal or land that knock-out blow that leaves your adversaries reeling. What have you got to lose? When it comes to the breath, the best things in life are actually free, no matter what the marketing folk will tell you.
‘Smart breathing’. Someone should trademark that one. Perhaps you are curious about ‘transformational breathing‘? A whole other level of conscious awareness.
PS: this post was inspired by 14 hours of recent anatomy study (‘Anatomy & Physiology Applied to Yoga’) with Andrew McGonigle, aka ‘Dr Yogi‘ at Tri Yoga Soho, London. I can’t believe we got through it all and I’m still hungry for more 🙂