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I recommend reading this article with its accompanying images. I have put a menu including all the sections at the top to make it easy to revisit them.

If you prefer to listen to this article I have recorded an audio version. Please find the YouTube video below the menu. 

Enjoy [!]

If you had an effective tool, which you could use to centre yourself, stay present and keep attention on the important things in life whenever stress and overwhelm hits, would that be helpful for you?

In this article I’m going to take you on a journey starting with how I discovered that breathing is a useful tool for lowering stress and in my case, fear. For a fundamental understanding of what is involved in the respiratory system we’ll get into the relevant physiology and how negative stress can affect our natural breathing pattern. We’ll look at common abnormal breathing patterns before moving into the physical, emotional and mental benefits of deep breathing. This article would not be whole unless we touched on the use of breathing in spiritual and contemplative traditions and of course; how we can change the way we breathe.

My hope is that you by the end of this article have realised the importance of breathing and how it can be used as a tool against overwhelming physical, emotional and mental stress.

Take a deep breath

Taking a deep breath when we are experiencing a stressful time is one of those old wise woman’s remedies. I can remember several occasions throughout my life when different people told me to take a “deep breath”. The implication being that it would help me calm down and cope better. It happens to be good advice…

For many years, since I was a little girl, I’ve had fears. The most prominent one being fear of dying. I’m from Sweden, my husband is Australian, and we live in Sydney. These circumstances plus the fact we love it means we travel regularly. As I’ve gotten older my fear of flying has increased. I suspect it is related to my fear of dying.

When we travelled to San Francisco in June this year we experienced a particularly rough flight. I am certain that if I hadn’t done a daily practice involving deep breathing for some time before this happened, I would’ve had a proper bad experience. We were getting close to San Francisco when the seat belt sign came on. The pilot’s voice in the speaker tells us that turbulence will be rough for a while. Strap yourself in 

The bumps get bigger and more frequent, it seems. I can feel the fear deep in my throat like so many times before. My body is tense. I hold my breath on every bump. The few times the plane is going steady I notice my heart feeling like it’s beating outside of my chest. My breathing is on par with the rate during a high intensity interval training.

A voice in my head speaks to me: Do the fundamental breath, remember how Mushtaq said it is impossible to feel any negative emotions when you do it?

Untying my tightly held fingers from the armrests I set my gaze on the seat in front of me. I breathe. I practice what I always do; slowing the exhale, keeping the belly relaxed on the inhale without tensing my chest or staggering the flow. It is OK in the intervals between the big bumps but ones the turbulence hits for real I need logic and force to stay focused on the breathing.

Just because it’s turbulent doesn’t mean that we are in danger.

I’m much more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane accident.

Breathing in, breathing out, pause, breathing in, breathing out, pause…

I am fully immersed in the breathing. It is smooth and slow. I can feel the air softly filling my lungs and BAM – the airhostess puts the tray with food down on the table in front of me. I am back.

There was no turbulence anymore. I had no concept of time. I didn’t know how long I had focused on my breathing for. At that moment I knew I had experienced something different. I had managed to enter the space [M] was talking about- the place of no negative emotion.

I understand why many contemplative traditions centre their practice around breathing. When I was in this moment I could feel that I separated myself from my thoughts and emotions. I was being present. I was seeing the world as it is not through the filters of my fear.

After the flight to San Francisco I realised just how useful the breathing practice is in our everyday lives. We stress over present circumstances, future scenarios and events in the past which we do not need stressing about.

We can create a pause before the fears and perceived ideas of our mind and heart taint our life experiences.

My fear of flying has not magically disappeared. It will need more work. Although it didn’t seem to affect me as bad during the several flights I went on after this. Knowing that I have my Breathing-tool to use whenever my mind is galloping away on a horse with my heart caught in a lasso is certainly liberating.

The breathing practice can be integrated into our lives stopping us from horsing around in the moment. To understand the long-term benefits of having a breathing practice we first need to learn a few things…

Breathing, a fundamental function of the human body

 

Normal respiratory rate is between 12 and 20 breaths per minute for an adult, that is 17,280 – 28,800 breaths per day. Knowing this piece of trivia will perhaps make it easier to appreciate the impact breathing has on us humans, as well as how we are as humans.

If we want to learn how breathing works, we might consult a textbook of anatomy and physiology. In broad terms it will tell us that the inhalation is an active process of the air moving in through the nose or mouth down to the lungs. The inhale is thought of as active because the dome-shaped diaphragm, our main breathing muscle, is contracting and lowering when we breathe in. The ribs will move upward and outward. This makes the thoracic volume increase and the lungs expand. The lungs have already expanded prior to air being inhaled in this process which means the flow of air into the alveoli occur passively.

(ze lungs, wellcome library)

 

The exhalation in normal breathing is considered the passive phase because of the recoil created through tension of the elastic properties of the thoracic wall and lungs. This makes abdominal organs press up against the diaphragm and the ribcage moves down and inward.

The air we breathe in can either go through the nostrils via the nasal cavity down the pharynx or it can be inhaled via the mouth passing the tonsils to get there [image of airways below]. From the pharynx it moves via the larynx into the trachea before it enters the main bronchus and later bronchioles in the lungs on its way down to the alveoli. The alveoli are wrapped in a network of capillaries. This is where the exchange of gases occurs, which is called pulmonary ventilation [3].

(human airways)

 

The air we inhale carries high levels of oxygen (O2), about 20 percent. This oxygen is diffused across the walls of the alveoli and the capillary network surrounding them into the bloodstream. O2 is being exchanged for carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is poisonous for the body in large amounts and is exhaled for the benefit of our plants [3].

It is important to know that CO2 is not “the enemy” or other such simplistic notions. It is in fact greatly important to have certain levels of CO2 for O2 to be released from haemoglobin which it binds to in the blood to get transported to different tissues. This is called the Bohr effect; the increased release of O2 to the tissue when the CO2 concentration is high [6].

(gas exchange of O2 and CO2 in the lungs)

 

The sensitivity to release more O2 in the presence of CO2 can be suppressed in people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibroids and asthma. For these people the body may adopt a chronic state of hyperventilation as an attempt to maintain adequate oxygenation of the tissues.

However, it is also due to hyperventilation, fast breathing which increases the exhalation, that is lowering the CO2 concentration in the body. This may affect oxygenation of peripheral tissues including vital organs like the brain, heart, liver and kidney [6].

Hyperventilation 🡪 Low CO2 🡪 Less gas exchange with O2 🡪 Lower O2 concentration 🡪 Hyperventilation

Hyperventilation puts a strain on our body. However, it is important to know that thanks to the Bicarbonate buffer system the pH will not fall out of its normal range. If the blood pH falls out of its normal range for an extended period, it is a serious medical problem. Pulmonary ventilation is one of the factors that regulate the body’s internal pH levels keeping the balance between acid and base. When we get into poor breathing patterns later it is important to remember, that even in these cases your blood pH will be firmly regulated [6].

The normal way of breathing can be distorted to default hyperventilation. On the other hand, humans have a particularly neat physiological trick up their sleeve. Unlike many animals walking this earth taking one breath per stride, humans can consciously control the rate of their breathing. We can consciously choose to breathe in different ways. This is a unique feature only a limited number of mammals can do, including cetaceans like dolphins and whales.

(cetaceans, wellcome library)

 

I wonder, if our ability to consciously control breathing has any links to it being the primary practice in contemplative work? [Observe your breath]

Stress; 3 forces, 3 stages and 2 systems

 

Homeostasis is the function of the body which aims to keep a physiological state of calmness. For example: Staying within a pH or temperature range that is just right for that area of the body is crucial for it to function optimally. It is the Goldilocks principle. Like I mentioned earlier, if the pH drops or increases past the range for optimal function in an area you are in serious trouble.

Chronic stress could be one such thing that constantly challenges homeostasis. When the body is stressed it produces stress hormones, increases heart rate and favour shallow rapid breathing. This forces the body to work hard to bring it back to a stable state where homeostasis is within its optimal range [1, 8].

(a man is comforting a woman who appears in some distress, wellcome library)

 

Stress is defined as a process in which environmental demands strain an organism’s adaptive capacity resulting in both psychological demands as well as biological changes that could place a risk for illness”. [1]

Just enough stress, or lagom as we would say in Sweden, is necessary for growth of the human body. Hans Selye, one of the pioneers in research on stress, stressors and how it affects us humans called this type of stimulus Eustress. Eu meaning good. On the other side of the spectrum, he named the negative stress distress. Distress is a state where a person is unable to fully adapt to stressors resulting in maladaptive behaviours like aggression, passivity and withdrawal. As things come in threes, the ‘third force’- neutral in nature, is called neustress. This is a stimulus, information or sensory perceived as unimportant or inconsequential. [1, 8]

In 1950 it was posited by Selye that “there is an integrated syndrome of closely interrelated adaptive reactions to non-specific stress itself; termed the General Adaptation Syndrome .“ This he said, have three stages that are called the alarm syndrome, the stage of resistance and the stage of exhaustion.

Our body has a nervous system called the autonomic nervous system that regulates unconscious and bodily functions such as respiratory rate, heart rate and digestion. It has two main branches; the sympathetic “fight, flight or freeze” system and the parasympathetic “rest and digest” system which are involved in the General Adaptation Syndrome.

(a lecture on the nervous system, wellcome library)

 

In the alarm stage the body reacts to the stressor(s) via the “fight, flight or freeze” response. The sympathetic nervous system is mobilising to deal with the perceived threat. Having several nights of poor sleep, putrid interactions with the boss or fighting for your life in a ditch in a third world country will put the sympathetic nervous system under persistent stimulation.

In the resistance stage the parasympathetic nervous system is saddling up to bring the physiological functions back to normal. The body’s resources are fighting to bring back homeostasis.

If the stressor(s) continues to strain the body beyond its capacity, you’ll hit the exhaustion stage. This is what we call chronic stress. The body is now vulnerable to disease, and death [8].

(woman growing an extra pair of arms in stress, pixabay.com)

 

During the 60s and 70s Herbert Benson performed a series of studies. He discovered that there is a way to mitigate the negative consequences of distress, The answer? The Relaxation Response. This phenomenon describes how a person moves from a stressful state to a state of well-being. Benson’s studies suggested that several techniques, already well-known techniques, elicits the Relaxation Response.  The list is not all that surprising it includes deep breathing, meditation, guided imagery, tai chi, qi gong and yoga. The physiological benefits from these types of techniques would see a decrease in respiratory rate, heart rate and muscle tension [12]. We will investigate this further later in this article.

To measure the imbalance in the Autonomic Nervous System, between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system we can use Heart Rate Variability. This variability is a measurement of the variation in time between each heartbeat. A very regular heartbeat on the scale of microseconds indicates greater sympathetic dominance. If a person has a low variability it means they are not doing a great job with changing states and shifting between the two nervous systems. Spending more time on the “fight, flight or freeze” side of life. People with low variability have been associated with worsening depression or anxiety, and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and death. On the other hand, when a person has a high variability it is a sign of a healthy nervous system, showing flexibility and resilience to stress. [5]

Luckily for us we have a Vagus nerve in our body, the 10th cranial nerve. This is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system known to modulate stress responses [2]. Stimulating the vagus nerve will promote secretion of the neurotransmitter Acetylcholine (“Vagusstoff”) which in turn slows down heart rate making us calm and alert [4] Activity of the vagus nerve can also be measured by heart rate variability and heart rate. [2]

(the Vagus nerve, wellcome library)

 

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to contemplate something very physical and immediately tangible. The word strain defines something which has passed its current ability to adapt and withstand the stress imposed upon it. If we take say; a deadlift. Once the stressor is greater than the capacity one will feel the strain occurs in the lower back (a common area for strains during a deadlift). The structure gives way for the too heavy load. This can be both cumulative and episodic. If one has acquired a higher level of awareness it is possible to sense when the stress is about to become a strain and pull back from the dangerous territory in time, but that is a topic for another post.

If we allow enough stress on the body to create growth without exceeding our capacity, we will be in a good state.

Abnormal breathing patterns

 

Breathing through the mouth expanding the chest in different patterns are considered abnormal ways of breathing. I have experienced some of these abnormal patterns at different times in my life, others I have observed in people around me.

Through my teacher [M] I learned about the dysfunctional patterns of breathing. They may be familiar to you as well? Perhaps you had not yet thought of whether there’s a pattern to the way you breathe. It may be a combination of these patterns that surface at different times. Depending on the state you are in.

I shall go on to share a few with you to make it easier to understand what to look for in these somewhat unchartered waters:

{1} Hyperventilation breathing: This pattern has shallow rapid breaths. Approximately 20 breaths and more, per minute. The diaphragm movement will be restricted while the accessory muscles are being used in this pattern and it is often related to shock, anxiety and or panic which can make this habituated.

{2} Clavicular breathing: This type of breathing pattern is seen by looking at the upper chest, which will raise and elevate. The abdomen won’t really move but the diaphragm may rise a bit. Air is often inhaled via the mouth as these people can’t get enough air in through the nostrils. Fatigue is likely a result of this breathing patterns as there’s not enough oxygen coming in. Pulmonary ventilation is minimal.

{3} Thoracic breathing: This is the typical chest breathing pattern that will enlarge the thoracic cavity through a partial vacuum of the lungs. Just like in the clavicular breathing pattern pulmonary ventilation will be poor in these people and abdominal movement minimal. The lower lobes of the lungs won’t get enough blood in them as a result.

{4} Paradoxical breathing: This is also called reverse breathing and is one type of breathing taught in the Daoist traditions. You can observe this pattern by looking at the abdomen, which will contract on the inhale and expand on the exhale- a reverse pattern to what most people experience when breathing naturally. If this has become a normal breathing pattern it may have come from stress, shock or fear.

{5} Periodic breathing: This is a pattern of rapid shallow breaths, then holding of the breath followed by a heavy sigh. The rapid shallow breaths will blow off CO2, holding will redevelop it and the sigh will start the cycle over again. This pattern may indeed also come from stress-related situations.

{6} Hypoxic breathing: This breathing is what I have spent most of my training-time doing. It is the preparation for perceived exertion breathing, which is commonly seen in athletes. The inhalation takes place then a withholding of the exhalation to retain and pressurize until the perceived exertion is done. The pressure it creates will increase ones’ strength, the amount of force that can be delivered and how much shock one can absorb. This is likely why, in my experience, it is common to see this pattern in the gym environment where people are aiming to lift heavy weights. This pattern quite likely leads to an increase in intrathoracic pressure, a rise in blood pressure and a lowering of the oxygen content. Due to these reasons one may say it could shave minutes off the end of your life and is therefore not healthy.

(woman lifting weights, pixabay.com)

 

If one is inclined to increase the number of bumper plates, they have on the bar they’re lifting, then using breathing number six might be preferable. However, for those interested in longevity and abundant energy, one should be careful to adopt such a pattern outside of their lifting. They would do best practicing a natural breathing pattern that works with the body and its movements rather than working against it.

It should be mentioned that there is plenty of strength to be gained from a pattern which allows the movement to work together with our breath. But that is best left for another time.

Breathing in relation to posture and our physical body

 

Breathing patterns, whether they are good or poor, done at such a frequent rate as we humans do, does impact the way we move, think, feel and therefore also how we perceive the world.

When we do not breathe properly, we will not be able to use our full range of movement.

If we have tight shoulders and attempt to lift the arms up over head, it will make a curve in the lower back to compensate for the range of motion we lack. The range of movement is simply taken from one structure to be used in another, which leads to incorrect usage of the body. Compensation is the result.

Compensation equally occurs for the structures that are involved in breathing. For a person breathing into her chest the air may move in to raise the sternum (breastbone) but at the same time move the back equally in the same direction. This puts a strain on the back structures and is, like in the previous examples, shifting the range of movement from one area into another. This is poor use of our structure.

I wonder if our habitual ways of moving, or the lack of movement, is making it difficult for us to breathe well. How does a crooked structure breathe?

“In maturity, however, persons tend to repeat a limited number of movements. The body then tends to accustom itself to this restricted number of movements, the skeletal structure adjusts to them, changes result, and posture become crooked”…. “You will be able to recognize the difference in the length of the periods of breathing in and out, and to realize that the process of breathing adjusts itself to the posture of the body with respect to gravity”… “You will finally see that breathing becomes easier and more rhythmical when the body is held erect without any conscious effort, that is, when its entire weight is supported by the skeletal structure.”

– Awareness through movement, Moshe Feldenkrais p. 100-103

Many humans sit at a desk for hours per day, five days a week. Fast forward a few years and “suddenly” the musculoskeletal structure that has adjusted to the restricted movements is now corrupt. Sitting down may not be the main culprit in this scenario – lack of movement is.

If lack of movement makes our posture ‘crooked’, then the movements for breathing will be restricted as a result. It is useful to be adaptable in our breathing, just as it is useful to be adaptable in moving the body. By expanding the sternum, the abdomen and the ribs all around the torso without having compensation patterns occur, the pressure in the chest or abdominal cavity can increase and more air can be inhaled, and exhaled. Voila- A natural breathing pattern can occur!

(three women, three postures)

 

Looking beyond sedentary lifestyle factors, Frederik Beck [FB] wrote in his postural manifesto about beliefs and mood influencing people’s posture [bewarned- it is long].

“It is true: Beliefs and mood does influence posture. Simple changes in life circumstances can do wonders to bring about often quite startling changes. People who cannot feel these changes in mood are not immune to their effects – they simply cannot feel them [and thusly are their slaves, as emotions lead thought-trains in unworked minds]. 

There is a catch here though – the logic works in reverse as well: beliefs and mood equally reflect posture. The upside of this is that our mental and emotional states can be changed with the posture (physical state)”.

I’m thinking about the times I have seen someone change their posture when being yelled at; hunching into a ball keeping their arms tight to the chest looking down to the ground. Likewise, how someone straightens their posture looking at the horizon after being praised. My intuition tells me that Fred is on to something.

If posture is influenced by beliefs and mood, I think it is near fetched to think that breathing patterns also change with a troubled mind or a broken heart. We will move on to consider how practising breathing can positively change our mental and emotional states. As a matter of fact, change the way we behave. Change who we are?

The mental and emotional benefits

 

At work or in the home we experience stress in the form of physical, mental and emotional demands. Eustress stimulus that can contribute to an increase in motivation, energy and enthusiasm. Distress can cause feelings of being stressed, have a meltdown or yell at colleagues if gone far beyond an initial stage of distress. If a stress keeps straining the human beyond its capacity over time it leads to chronic stress which in turn contributes to a whole slew of disorders such as diabetes, obesity, certain cardio-vascular conditions, ulcers, depression and anxiety, asthma and more [1]. It is worth mentioning here that acute stress is often related to more intense stressors while chronic stress is classified as less intense but lengthy. [1, 8]

Pierre Philippot studied whether different emotional experiences such as sadness, joy, fear and anger elicited different physiological patterns. His findings were positive. Subjects’ self-reported experiences were strongly associated with measurable physiology. Some of these peripheral changes that occurred were heartbeat and breathing. Fear and anger were reported as most intense in breathing changes and heart rate accelerations, and sadness the least. [7]

(fear, wellcome library)

 

One study summarising many benefits of breathing is one by Xiao Ma et al from 2017. They looked at the effects of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. In their introduction they reference studies on breathing from Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Martial arts, Pranayama in Yoga and Tai Chi Chuan practices. Some of these were combined with meditation and other contemplative traditions, others were breathing practices alone. The benefits found included emotional balance and social adaptation and reduction in anxiety/depression and perceived stress. They also saw a bidirectional association between breathing and attention and enhanced attentional task performance.

Wouldn’t that be useful at work tomorrow- stress reduction and worker productivity!

In their own study, they found that diaphragmatic breathing practices have the potential to improve cognitive performance including sustained attention, reduced negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults. [10].

A study from 2019 looked at breathing and its effect on decision-making. They used HRV (Heart rate variability) to measure the effects on the Vagus nerve and Parasympathetic nervous system. Positive results came back, the experimental group had higher percentage of correct answers and less perceived stress during the test. This was the case for both the breathing patterns; skewed and equal ratio of the inhale and exhale, that was tested [2].

This idea of using deep breathing as a tool for bringing you back in and creating a pause to refocus on the next task, is frequently used by the New Zealand Rugby union team the All Blacks. They conspire (means breathe together) in a circle out on the field when they need to slow down and reset before their next task [9].

(conspire, pixabay.com)

 

Just like Herbert Benson found that several techniques centred around breathing elicited the relaxation response [12]. We see today various traditions and breathing patterns helping us tap into the parasympathetic nervous system [2, 10].

If several breathing techniques can work, I’m wondering if a consistent and conscious practice is what makes it so potent. Like in the experience I had on the plane to San Francisco.

Breathing, the interface between you and your

thoughts and emotions

 

A life containing many strains of stress will be asked to pay a price in bodily, emotional and mental health and well-being. We don’t simply wake up one day with poor breathing patterns – it is a result of poor habits and stressful life events [I suspect there are additional forces at play]. Attaining a higher level of body literacy will be important to recognise that we carry with us a numbness-provoking job, toxic relationships and goals we do not care about. If we can feel the things we drag along, or perhaps are dragging us along the face of the earth, we can change our path of life.

Breathing is no longer a nurturing tool creating the space between us and our behaviours, patterns and fixations. It has become yet another thing we drag along, slowing us down further on the path for abundant energy and happiness. Another poor pattern we’ve collected on our way.

Luckily, there’s more than one way we can go about changing such a sad situation. If it is clear what poor habits we have collected in our bag, we can simply dispose of them, one by one. This may promote fundamental functions like breathing to take its natural course. For people that do not yet see, and therefore don’t know what needs tossing- building a breathing practice can create the interface this person needs to see and act in the correct way.

Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.

– The Alexander technique, writings of F Matthias Alexander, p. 3

(a map and compass, pixabay.com)

 

This is the type of excruciating work that needs to take place in our lives for true change to occur. If we are serious about wanting to be shown our weaknesses and then the strengths required to take the path we are meant to walk in this lifetime, then breathing is the best place to start.

The centre of ancient contemplative practices

 

I’ve learnt from my teacher [M] that in many ancient traditions and spiritual practices, the word for breath also means spirit; Eastern traditions of China they have Chi and Ki, in Hindu Prana, Ande in Swedish, Ånd(e) In Denmarkian, In Icelandic Andardráttur, In Zulu Umoya, In Arabic Ruh, In Hebrew Ruach, In Turkey Nefes, In Lithuania Dvasia etc.

Breathing is a central part of ancient spiritual and contemplative practices and is often seen as the interface between the body, heart and mind connecting different parts of the work.

([M] mural in San Francisco)

 

Some forms of pranayama, yogic breathing, are used for increased oxygen quantities to vitalise the system but also for positively affecting the nervous system as well as the heart and lungs. To bring peace of mind and many other things. In the Daoist tradition they speak of the breath, Qi, as being in between the body and mind, as a way of calming and cultivating more energy.

The research papers on deep breathing and its many positive effects are piling up. Though, I wonder if there is not just as much to learn about breathing practices beyond science. The exploration that we can do in feeling how breathing can change our physical, emotional and mental states is arguably of higher importance. Creating a good breathing pattern, you could say embodying it, will bring a different set of qualities greater than if intellectualizing it was in focus. It needs practice and it needs to be done.

“Just breathe the damn breath” as [FB] would say.

Learn how to breathe well

 

Breathing; a physical motion (unless you’ve done work on it) is done 12-20 times a minute, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Breathing has the potential to generate great benefits in many physiological, psychological as well as emotional aspects. Unlike strength work or other aspects of physical fitness, which is performance and capacity dominant. Any improvements made to your breathing pattern will have profound benefits on your physical being in every moment of each day [!!!].

Poor breathing patterns are deep-rooted for many of us. After hours, weeks, months and years of piled up negative stress, it has become entwined in tissues, structures and pure essence of our being. Much like my fear experience when flying.

The first time I attempted a breathing exercise which had a specified count I was out of breath after only a few breaths. I noticed that I couldn’t keep the count as instructed without gasping for air. My brain was telling me I needed to breathe more frequently. Breathing through the nose deep into the abdomen was not an easy task. My untamed body kept going back to shallow breathing via the mouth. My ego had to face it; I did not have the ability or capacity to breathe well.

It is worth starting with the basics. If I had ignored my observations, I would have created a pattern far off what I was intending to. We don’t want to go from one type of shitty breathing pattern to another. [No fuck that]

(observe your breath, pixabay.com)

 

Better it is for us to start with observing the breath by sitting down comfortably with the feet flat on the ground, hands on the thighs with an extended spine. Thereafter breathe as normal and take conscious note of what that is like; Is the breathing done via the mouth or nose? How is the body moving during the inhale vs. exhale? What areas are expanding and contracting and in what phase; on the inhale or exhale? At what rate is the breathing done? What does it feel like?

If we observe our breathing consciously enough times, we get a clearer picture of what it’s like. We can then move on to take control of the breath. The suggestion here is to practice a longer exhale. Softly pushing the air out from all around your abdomen by contracting the transverse abdominis muscle [Anatomical Image below]. This muscle is located as a corset in between your ribcage and pelvis all the way around the body.

(transverse abdominis)

 

Keep the exhale only long enough for the inhale to be a passive movement of air into the lungs. The inhale will expand the bottom of the ribcage and abdomen.

If it feels like the air must be sucked in rapidly, the exhale has been pushed too long for the system to handle at this time. On the other hand, if this is an easy task, add in a moment’s pause after the exhale. When a subtle feeling of needing air appears, proceed with the passive inhale before actively exhaling again. Repeat. Allow the system to fully get on board with the process.

For bonus points; feel the air move through the nostrils into the lungs on the inhale and reverse for the exhale. Nasal breathing slows the breathing rate [11].

With these two phases; Observing the breath and Take control of the breath we can favour breathing that stimulates the Vagus nerve and Parasympathetic nervous system. This will slow down our heart rate and increase Heart Rate Variability.

With time, your breathing will repattern. Shallow rapid breathing sucked in through the mouth to the high chest area will no longer be ‘your thing’. Breathing deeper will improve your respiratory ventilation. As a result, your exhale and pause will get longer.

With more time, you will find that chronic stress from projects at work or feeling inadequate compared to others on Instagram, will no longer touch you. Or in my instance, fear did not penetrate my mind.

“I cannot and should not be cured of my stress, but merely taught to enjoy it.

– Hans Selye

Conscious breathing

 

As I finish this article, I can tell you that many conscious deep breaths were taken throughout writing this (for me) big article. It helped me many times dealing with the anxiety of making it perfect before publishing and the overwhelm from studies I wanted to read and reference.

This article does not come close to exhaust the information which could be presented on this topic- it seems I have many more articles to write in this lifetime. I am excited to give you a glimpse into what Conscious Breathing is and how it can be used on your everyday journey.

Making an effort to practice conscious breathing is important. It may take some time to feel the bigger and widespread effects from it. Start practising today.

***

I’d like to express many thanks and gratitude to my teachers and friends Mushtaq Ali Al Ansari [M], Frederik Beck [FB], Dave Wardman [DW], and my husband Luke Tulloch [LT] for guiding me in life as well as in the process of making this article.

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