Updated: May 3, 2021
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Inhale... Exhale.... should be automatic... And it is, but our level of consciousness does affect our brain's chemistry. Our ability to control our breathing is special, since it has such a huge connection to so many other functions. Typically it's something we do without thinking. But, a conscious effort to take control of an aspect that regulates other automatic functions, is Powerful... If you missed our blog last week why Meditation is important, don't miss giving it a read.
Mindfulness and Yoga
Breathing is at the core of ancient mindfulness practices, from Yoga, Tai Chi and Meditation. However, studies suggest that breathing exercises alone, derived from those ancient yoga practices, can be excellent for the body, mind and soul.
These practices understand the inter linked connection, between our subconscious mind to conscious breathing and meditation.
Trusting in the benefits of breathing goes back to ancient Hindu that centers around "prana" - vital air and "pranayama"- breath retention. The 20th century has shown deep emergence of relaxed breathing techniques that combat anxiety and stress.
Breathing is the only autonomic feature we can consciously take control of, and pretty hard too at that. Since unconscious signal will usually override our conscious efforts. However, this cross road of consciousness allows breathing techniques to provide some control of one automatic system, and in return affects others for the better (i.e heart rate).
On a cellular level...
Breathing is a fundamental part of living and is definitely vital to our survival. Breathing is directed by our autonomic nervous system, which controls functions that we do not consciously need to control, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and blood oxygen levels. Our hypothalamus has a deep connection to our autonomic system and also regulates emotional stimuli, memory and behavior. Our breathing can adjust the autonomic system based on which system is turned on (i.e sympathetic or parasympathetic), When we turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, we have calmness and lowered stress, as this time the body can rest and digest best.
As well, differently based on how our hypothalamus reacts, due to its important role to regulating our autonomic system. Understanding the connection between our emotional stability and behavior, shows an important role in creating a better subconscious body by putting more effort into it. Many, aspects we have no control of but breathing we slightly can, and our emotions for the most part as well. Based on experience and conditioning some emotions and behavior can transpose and force other affects on the body. This may be breathing rate, heart rate or which nervous system is engaged.
Nerve cells sent from the brain stem, are responsible for the signals that adjust our breathing rate and depth, based off our oxygen saturation and CO2 saturation. CO2 is the primary catalyst for increased breathing, as it forces the main brain stem to signal about any excess storage in our body, and will adjust the variables according to maintain the proper balance.
Typically, with high intensity activities, breathing is increased due to high levels of CO2 in our blood instead of low levels of oxygen, because CO2 is harmful if too much of its in our bloodstream and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding our brain. Nerves cells from our higher brain center can adjust our breathing rate when we feel emotions, stress, or pain.
An easier way to understand how nerves take control of our body, think of times when you have been in "fight or flight" mode and your heart is pumping, your breathing increases and your muscles get tense. This is typical when you perceive imminent danger, have a deep fear or undergo extreme stress. Have you ever turned a corner and bumped into someone and the reaction was typically a "jump" or light scare???
That split second of fear for the unknown causes our autonomic nerve cells to react for our safety by adjusting many features, from spiking adrenaline levels in our body which changes our: eye dilation, level of eye sight to above the subject, deep breaths with core tense- in order to protect vital organs, and rapid bodily movement. This example shows the sympathetic system.
However, the times when we are completely relaxed, calm and sometimes after a good meal food just seems to digest better, possibly even put you to sleep. This is due to our parasympathetic nervous system being active and taking the opportunity to break down food more efficient by sending signals to nap or sleep and turn off other energy expenditure from other bodily functions, so it can digest and absorb food better. These two are necessity for us live, and our breathing is completely different in each.
Real life application...
Therefore, since breathing is the only autonomic feature we can consciously try to control. The knowledge of which system is desired for different situations or activity can dictate how we want to breath in order to maximize the brain capacity for those functions. If we want to be calm or at ease but the sympathetic is on, then it will be very hard to relax and sleep or digest. But, if we want to be alert and focused on a task that takes lightning motor skills and thought process, we need to be in a controlled "fight or flight" mode.
This is why athletes train so much to create muscle memory... Since much of sports is played in the sympathetic nervous system, or a "flow" state, the actions connected to freezing or fighting. Many times athletes try to tap into their logical side while in the midst of playing and this causes brain "farts" due to the brain being amped up on enough adrenaline in order to react quick enough to the play or situation. The elite athletes can connect the best of both worlds into one and at the right time. Their Mindset control is next level... When the body can use a particular movement with automatic reaction plus conscious guidance, it truly a talent many are in awe of.
In my history of playing Division 1 baseball, I remember times when it was a tight game, late in innings, and because of that situation adrenaline is higher and focus is stronger. I tried my best to take deep breaths and make smooth relaxed motions. "Controlled aggression" Ying & Yang. This allowed me to be at my best in the moment and make quicker and smarter decisions. But, even with my conscious efforts, I have many recollections of hitting baseballs and running out of the box without realizing I hit the ball until half way down the baseline, because my reactive sympathetic system is on dialed in to ensure contact with the ball, and my ability to process logic is suppressed. This experience is an amazing insight in the in-depth switch between the two.
Diaphragmatic breathing is the goal of meditation. And these techniques will help move you in the right direction and mindset to allow for your best practice. It sometimes take a little extra time to really relax and become ready to meditate. Therefore, these techniques will help overcome many different situations or times of stress to ensure relaxed nasal breathing can be achieved before entering meditation.
The primary thing that inconveniences most novices is the means by which to sit appropriately. Body posture and breathing methods are interconnected and isolated simultaneously. Prior to figuring out how to inhale appropriately, you need to pick the correct pose. On the off chance that you are not in an agreeable position, your psyche will not have the option to unwind completely, as you will unknowingly consider how awkward this position is and how you wish that this was over soon. This is the reason prior to beginning your meditation or breathing techniques you should sort out which posture is the most agreeable for you.
The easiest way to feel if you're fully using your diaphragm, is to lay on your back, knees bent, feet flat, and rest one hand on your sternum, and the other on your stomach. Breath in deeply and you should feel your hand on your stomach lift first and higher than the hand on your sternum. As well, a slight lateral expansion of the abdomen should be felt or observed by another person. Then the hand on the stomach should fall first and return lower than the sternum on the exhale
Beginning with the basics, lets understand the most simple method of creating mindfulness and relaxation in the body and mind, by using a 1 by 2 nasal breathing technique. Simply breath in slowly and deeply through your nose, hold for 1-2 seconds, then exhale through your mouth twice as long as it took to inhale. This is mostly focused on the pause and exhale as it is a key method proven to lower heart rate and tension. The answers of effectiveness stems back to the physiology of our body. Our body increases our breathing rate and heart rate in response to excess CO2 levels. Therefore, consciously exhaling longer and deeper will ensure more CO2 is released, so the body will reduce heart beat and breathing rate/depth. Repeat this techniques for 5-10 minutes.
Secondly, the next technique is a bit more of a hands on approach. It is a 1 by 1 nostril method. This is a great way to lower blood pressure and develop a better connection between the left and right brain hemispheres. This Yoga breathing technique involves holding 1 nostril shut when breathing in, then closing that nostril and exhaling out the other.
To perform the alternate nostril breathing technique, sit in a comfortable position and place your left hand on your knee, palm facing the ceiling. Gently but tightly close your right nostril with your right thumb so that no air could go in or out of it.
Then take in air gradually through your left nostril, and once you feel that your lungs are loaded up with air, close that nostril with the forefinger of your right hand.
Keep holding the two nostrils as you hold your breath two or three seconds and afterward move your thumb and exhale out through the right nostril. After, switch hands, resting your right hand on your knee and shutting your right nostril with your left thumb, repeating the total grouping of activities. Proceed with the substitute exchanging of nostrils and repeat the breathing 5-10 times for each. Repeating substitute nostril breathing for 15-18 minutes is ideal.
Thirdly, the next methods combat issues with creating calmness in order to move into a relaxed diaphragmatic nasal breathing for meditation. This is a 4-4-4 or 5-5-5 method.
Both involve breathing in for 4-5 seconds, holding for 4-5 seconds, and exhaling slowly for 4-5 seconds. Repeating for at least a min for best results. Over doing this can result in light headedness as the levels of O2 to CO2 begin to imbalance. This is only to help create calmness rapidly in order to reduce deep tension.
Lastly, for times of severe panic attacks or anxiety, a 4-7-8 technique is a very useful method for alleviating this issue quickly. Start by inhaling regularly and taking a deep exhale until all air has dispersed the lungs, inhale for 4 seconds through your nose, hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale slowly out of your mouth for 8 seconds. If troublesome to hold your breath for that long, then divide everything by 2 and work your way up as needed. The key is to maintain the ratios to ensure effectiveness. Repeat no more than around 4 times to ensure less chance of light headedness or a dizzy spell. This is a more in-depth technique to overcome anxiety, and is known to work very well.
The key to any of these techniques, is trying to slow down your breathing rate and depth. When we are truly at our lowest HR, our diaphragm almost seems to be barely moving. If your body is taking deep chest raising breaths when at rest, then possibly your anxious or in need of some cardiovascular conditioning. At rest we should be able to breath in and out through our nose with no issues.
Mouth breathing can create many health issues such as: dry mouth, dental hygiene, heart burn, asthma, chronic stress and anxiety, elevated risk for diseases and poor sleep. Mouth breathing is known to even lead towards heart disease and high blood pressure, because of low oxygen concentration in the bloodstream, since the lungs can become dysfunctional as the diaphragm is not completely being used. Mouth breathing only uses the upper chest portion of our lungs. But, the connection of our nose and diaphragm ensures the deepest breaths are taken and therefore higher oxygen concentration per breath can be achieved. Asthma is deeply connected with mouth breathers, and can worsen from this issue.
Breathing is the core of our anatomy and when we learn to master and tap into it's abilities, we become much more elevated in consciousness and performance. If you could enhance your potential and emotional stability, why wouldn't ya? Focus on levelling up the aspects that you can control, and see the results begin to manifest in areas we technically can't control. Your health is your wealth, and mastering the basics is how you become a pro:)
Stay healthy... Stay consistent... Stay in the moment...