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Surely breathing is one thing we all know how to do, right? Well, maybe, up to a point – but the benefits of being aware of how we breathe, and learning to use our breath in the right way are really worth having, says our Health & Wellbeing Coordinator, Jacqui Wallace.
Building breathing awareness
Sometimes we just don’t seem to have the awareness of our own breathing happening every day in our life! We might be shallow breathing for instance, and not taking full healthy breaths, so a little breath awareness can address some of this.
Breath to help with focus
If you find meditating difficult (like many of us do), the breath can also be used as an anchor or a focus – You simply sit and focus on your breath and that’s enough. So, once you have an awareness of the breath, you can start to tap into it and use it as a resource available to you at any moment in time.
Regulating the central nervous system (CNS) – for easier relaxation
Research and evidence back up the fact that breathing also regulates the central nervous system, which means that we’re able to manage stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and even help to release traumatic experiences that somehow get stuck in our system. There are various breathing practices, but many focus on regulating our CNS. Put simply, the breath nurtures the transition from the stress response to the relaxation response within the body.
There’s a feedback loop within the nervous system which we can tap into with breathing exercises, and which sends signals back to the brain. So, for instance, during a challenging experience your breathing rate will get more aggravated (and could lead to a panic attack.) However, by taking deeper, fuller, diaphragmatic (or ‘belly’) breaths, receptors in your CNS will detect this and as a result will send a signal back to the brain which sends the nervous system to an even calmer, safe and relaxed state and you can instantly feel better and move away from that place of anxiety.
Regulating pressure inside the body – for greater comfort
The diaphragm is the dome-shaped main breathing muscle right at the base of the ribs and can carry a lot of tension – often anxiety tension and then in turn, habitual tension. Maybe not as noticeable as tension in the shoulders for instance, but it can still cause pain. Many of us carry tension in our diaphragm without really realising it, but this really impacts on the way we breathe.
The diaphragm is only one part of the pressure system in the body. The pelvic floor is also part of it and there’s also a membrane in the head that looks like a diaphragm running right through the skull. So, if one diaphragm carries tension, others over or under compensate in some way. Making sure there is a free exchange of pressure and communication available within that whole system is key for healthy and full diaphragmatic breathing.
Only when the breathing process happens in the way it’s designed does that feedback loop send the information back to the brain to signal to the brain that you’re safe and comfortable. And only when you’re comfortable can you breathe properly and fully.
Stimulating the lymphatic system – for greater energy
There are also a few side effects that happen with the deep full breathing exercises and the other little movement exercises. It can help stimulate the lymphatic system too. When we practice more diaphragmatic breathing, there’s a healthier pressure exchange within the abdominal cavity. There’s a big lymph duct that runs deep inside the abdomen which oversees the collection of lymph from the legs. As we stimulate the lymphatic system, so in turn, we can also alleviate some of the stagnation we might be carrying around in our body which can make us feel sluggish. Sometimes your body can feel lethargic although you might not necessarily be tired – this is stagnation, and we can improve this and get things to move better with breathing exercises.
Movement to improve the restrictions of the breath – for combatting chronic breathing conditions
Together with breathwork, practicing regular, gentle exercises can improve our breathing capacity, which is especially important for anyone who suffers from breathing conditions.
Some exercises for example, address the tension we hold around the thorax (breathing area in the upper chest.) Gentle movement and stretching exercises can release tension because within the breathing process, almost every muscle in the body is involved. However, there are a lot of muscles in the thorax area, and if they carry tension habitually, then that’s going to restrict breathing for sure.
If someone is struggling with chronic breathing problems such as asthma, then it’s important to investigate whether there might be a chronic stimulation of something in the CNS at play. If there’s a lot of tension in the neck, that could be part of it too, so it’s great to do some neck exercises in this case.
So, what can we do?
Just 10 to 20 minutes of mindful breathing exercises a day can make such a difference. It’s a great way to start your morning, setting the tone for the day.
Some exercises are calming, helping to clear the mind and centre you so you can go through your day more easily. And in the evening, these calming breathing exercises can also improve your sleep.
Some exercises stimulate the circulation for when you require a bit more get up and go.
Anxiety and stress can happen at any time – Regular breathing practice can build resilience for when you feel overwhelmed.
When you’re calm and grounded, you’re more able to notice what challenge is pulling you off centre – so then you can come back to your breathing practice, something that’s with you all the time – and it’s such a powerful feeling.