Just Breathe...

Maybe you have come across breathing through yoga or pilates, but if like me until a few years ago,  you think of it as one of 'those alternative' type things and are a little sceptical, here is an article to change your mind. 

When I was a child I was asthmatic. It wasn't diagnosed until I was 16 and living in smog-filled Tokyo, but it most likely had been there all along. I  had been one of those kids who always had a winter cough that sounded like a dog barking and always seemed to struggle running or doing anything physical that lasted for more than a few minutes. When we moved to Tokyo my breathing noticeably became worse until one day on holiday in Australia after trying to get a medical certificate to go on a Padi diving course a local Doctor gave me a baffled look and said "hasn't anyone told you you are asthmatic." From then on for the next 10 years I would have noticeable bouts of feeling like someone was sitting on my chest. People would crowd around offering helpful suggestions to calm down, breathe deeper, more slowly, but none of it really made sense in the moment.

Once, I was handed a paper bag to blow into like they used to advise to do when someone was hyperventilating (please don't try this, as it's since been proven quite dangerous). I didn't feel like I could breathe any better, but mentally I was able to focus on watching the bag go up and down. Even though my brain was telling me that I couldn't breathe as the attach disspiated the bag started to inflate more on the out-breaths and this reassured me something was happening.

Learning meditative breathing is a bit like the paper bag idea, it's about being able to focus on what you are actually doing. On how the air moves in and out of your body, how there is a difference when your breath is coming from high up in your chest compared to down deep in your stomach. 

There are 175 neurons which link breathing to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety, and they are located deep in the brainstem. They can pick up on the differences in sighing, yawning, gasping, sleeping, laughing and sobbing. 

In 2017 researchers at Stanford University discovered that instead of regulating breathing, these neurons are actually spying on it, reporting back and most importantly altering the state of mind accordingly.

Thus by changing your breathing you are able to affect the parasympathetic nervous system (also called the rest and digest system). Importantly the parasympathetic system can conserve energy by slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal and gland activity, and relaxing sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. 

Our bodies have been trained for millions of years to respond to emergencies. Our

  • blood sugar level increases
  • eyes dilate
  • sweat glands perspire
  • heart rate increases
  • mouth becomes dry
  • muscles tense
  • blood decreases in arms and legs and pools in head and trunk

In the modern world, fortunately, few of us are ever in a true emergency situation. However, our minds are pretty good at inventing potential emergencies by reliving painful past experiences over and over again, or by predicting future catastrophe.

When we become mentally involved with a past or future predicted event, our body tends to respond to that experience as though the event were happening RIGHT NOW.

The magic of good breathing technique is that you can switch off the body's emergency response.

Learning how to breathe in a way to calm yourself down in a moment of panic or stress, as for me when I was younger, is nigh on impossible.

However as with everything we can learn through regular practice when in a normal situation.

By regularly practising relaxed breathing, not only can we get many benefits but we can also build the memory of how to calm ourselves down so that we can apply it when our body has gone into Emergency response mode.

Even if you don't suffer from stress or anxiety, yoga style breathing techniques have been proven to:

  • boost happiness and emotional stability
  • improve weight loss
  • increase exercise stamina
  • reduce inflammation and hence the risk of many diseases

There are many different breathing techniques, some suited to different situations and some simply suited to different people.

First things first, we need to check how to breathe deeply. We can do this with a mirror or a simple exercise called Hand to Shoulders 

A deep breath should start all the way down in your belly.  Sometimes we breathe from our chest instead of our belly, without realising it. Hand to Shoulders is an easy way to figure out which one you are doing. While sitting or standing, put your hands down by your sides. Then bend your arms at your elbows and place them on the front of your shoulders. Try taking a deep breath. If your shoulders are moving a lot, you are breathing from your chest. Focus more on taking breaths using your belly, practice until your shoulders remain still.

 

Now that you have mastered breathing deeply, here are a few of my favourite calming breathing exercises and some explanations on how to get started.

  1. Mountain breathing
  2. Square Breathing
  3. Five Breaths to change your life
  4. Pranayama - 4-7-8 breathing

MOUNTAIN BREATHING

Put up one hand, palm facing out and fingers spread apart. Place the index finger of your other hand at the base of your thumb and

  • Breathe in - while you move your finger up one side of your thumb.
  • Breathe out - while you move your finger down the other side of your thumb 

Do the same thing with the remaining four fingers, taking deep breaths in and out as you move your finger. After you’ve reached the second side of your pinky finger, you’ll have done 5 complete deep breaths.

SQUARE BREATHING

Visualise a square, or just think in sets of 4!

Start at the bottom right of the square

  • Breathe in - whilst counting to four as you trace the first side of the square
  • Hold your breath - and count to four as you trace the second side of the square
  • Breathe out - whilst counting to four as you trace the third side of the square
  • Hold your breath - for four counts as you trace the final side of the square

You just completed one deep breath!

FIVE BREATHS TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE

This is based on a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh

In, out.
Deep, slow.
Calm, ease.
Smile, release.
Here, now

In his own words "First, “in” and “out.” It means that when I breathe in, I know I am breathing in. It’s easy. And when I breathe out, I know I am breathing out. I don’t mix the two things up. Breathing in, I know it is my in-breath. Breathing out, I know this is my out-breath. By that time, you stop all the thinking, you just pay attention to your in-breath and your out-breath. You are 100 percent with your in-breath and your out-breath."

It's true, this is mindfulness in it's purest form. By paying attention solely to the breath you can start to truly centre yourself in the present moment.  

Once you have done the In/Out breath five times you move onto the second line of the poem: Deep / Slow

By now you should feel that your in-breath has become deeper and your out-breath becomes slower. Change your focus now to thinking "deep" on your in breath, then hold it for a few seconds and breathe out thinking slow.  If your breath is deeper, you are deeper. If your breath is slower, you are slower. It means you are more peaceful.

Some people use pebbles or other objects to help them track which line of the poem they are on. The idea would be that you start with 5 pebbles in a pile and then after each line of the poem you move the pebble into a new pile. 

So for each line of the poem you would practice 5 breaths, move the pebble and then start the next line of the poem. By the end you will have made 25 deep breaths.

The lines flow from one to the other and it is good to keep them in the right order as they help you to transition through each state.

From deep and slow, you move to calm and ease. This is the stage where you truly allow yourself to let go of what has been plaguing you. Allowing yourself to be at peace.  This is an exercise given by the Buddha himself in a sutra called Anapanasati Sutra, The Sutra on Mindful Breathing. “Breathing in, I calm the mental formations in me. Breathing out, I let go.” I let go of my anger. I calm my anger, I calm my worries, I calm my jealousy. And I let go of my anger, I let go of my jealousy.

Next comes Smile and Release, ideally you are now in a place of having let go and are able to smile. However this might not always be the case, you may think that you have nothing to smile about. Buddhist teachings suggest if this is the case to think of a smile as "yoga of the mouth" a series of muscle exercises. It can be true that the body can lead the mind. A smile too can be practised.

As you breathe out and say "release," picture all of the tension flowing out of your body as a black cloud of breath that dissolves in front of you. Work your way through each tension point one at a time dissolving it and expelling it through your breath. Notice how much better your body feels after each one. 

Here/Now is about grounding yourself back in the moment, bringing yourself back to the present, emptying your mind, opening your eyes and getting ready to start anew.

PRANAYAMA - 4-7-8

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.

I personally like this one for the simplicity, and the ability to do it anywhere. When you are driving, when you need to hit the Pause button when dealing with a colleague or difficult teenager, or when you just need to stop yourself from doing something you know you shouldn't.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose - count for four seconds.
  • Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  • Exhale for eight seconds.

All the while, relax your jaw muscles and keep your mouth closed while inhaling through your nose. Don't worry too much about being able to count in seconds, its the ration 4-7-8 that's the important bit.

 

I hope you have found this article interesting and helpful. As with everything it is intentional action that triggers change and practice is a huge part of that. Breathing is perhaps the simplest self-help technique out there, and it's pretty hard to come up with a rational reason why you can't get started right away.

It doesn't cost anything. It doesn't take up lots of time. You don't need any special equipment. It can easily be stacked alongside other habits. 

As ever, Enjoy the Journey.

Love Life. Live 4 Today.

Alison

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