We breathe without thinking, so why think about it? Because the breath is an extraordinarily powerful tool that we can use to improve our everyday experience of life. Read on to learn about the function and structure of the breath, its interaction with the nervous system, and how to explore and improve it. Use this information to gain a better sense of what is and what should be occurring in your body with each inhalation and exhalation throughout the day.
Function of the Breath
The breath provides our most basic, continuous source of energy – oxygen. Required for all cells to function, oxygen enters through the lungs, and our heart distributes it to our cells. Conversely, the breath also performs our most basic, continuous excreting function – cleansing us by ridding our body of carbon dioxide. Therefore the way we inhale and exhale changes the chemistry of our blood – the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide, the ratio of new energy to old toxins.
Breathing, through providing energy and removing waste products for our whole body, affects the functioning of all the body's systems – nervous, circulatory, hormonal, digestive, immune, and muscular. It affects our emotions, sleep, memory, energy, concentration, and sense of well-being. It affects every moment of our lives.
Structure of the Breath
Fig 1 - Lungs
Air is pulled into the lungs by our breathing muscles, primarily the diaphragm. This thin umbrella-shaped muscle conforms to the curve of the lungs and lies on top of the upper abdominal organs. At the top of the diaphragm's dome lies a central, disc-shaped tendon, which the heart rests on and is attached to. The muscle fibers of the diaphragm radiate from this central tendon to attach to the inside surfaces of the bottom of the sternum, the lower ribs, and the lumbar vertebrae (the ones below your rib cage). The diaphragm's connections to the front of the spine are the strongest and most stable: they anchor the breath.
Fig 2 - Diaphram
At an average rate of 12 to 16 breaths per minute, we breathe between 17,000 and 23,000 times per day. The expansion and contraction from our inhalations and exhalations keep our body in a constant state of subtle motion. Each breath cycle contracts and relaxes the diaphragm muscle; expands and contracts the lungs; moves the ribs, spine, and sternum; massages the heart; and pumps the organs. This oscillating action pushes toxins out of muscles, organ tissue, and joints, and floods the areas with new, fresh blood. Therefore, the act of breathing not only re-energizes us with oxygen, but also provides continuous movement through our whole torso that is necessary for optimum functioning of the organs that sustain our life.
The Autonomic Nervous System and the Breath
The autonomic nervous system is the relatively involuntary portion of our nervous system. It functions continuously without our conscious intervention and it has two parts – one that excites the body and one that calms it. The sympathetic nervous system responds to stress and excitement by releasing adrenaline, stimulating our heart to beat faster and our organs to release more energy, and sending blood to our muscles. It shuts down digestion and other functions that are of secondary importance in an emergency. In today's over-stressed, hyper-stimulating environment, our sympathetic nervous system is chronically activated. This leads to heart stress, anxiety, weakened immune function, illness, and chronic physical and psychological fatigue.
Fig 3 - Brain
While the breath is usually relegated to an unconscious process, we have the blessed ability to actively and consciously intervene. The breath, through our exhalations, activates the parasympathetic nervous system to slow our breathing and heart rates and generally to calm the systems of our body. Due to the breath's influential role, control of it is an invaluable resource in calming, reviving, and healing ourselves.
Improving the Breath
As children, we breathe easily and fully; our abdomen and ribs expand naturally, and our breath gives us vitality and a sense of aliveness. As we grow and face physically and psychologically stressful situations, we brace our body by restraining our breath in order to mitigate the stress. Our nervous system becomes conditioned to use these restricted, distorted breathing patterns habitually.
Poor breathing is reflected in tension in your neck, shoulders, and upper back and even in your jaw, face, and eyes. It is reflected in feelings of stress, anxiety, mental and physical fatigue, and bodily pain. Poor breathing undermines all elements of our health.
Fig 4 - Ribs
To become acquainted with your breath, explore it in a comfortable, relaxed position in an area with few external distractions. Sit or lie quietly and breathe normally. Observe the quality and rate of your breath, its depth and smoothness, where your breath begins, and how your body moves with your breath. (When exploring, avoid forcing the breath, which can cause feelings of anxiety, irritability, or discomfort.) Your conscious observation of the breath can change and calm it, so practice this regularly, creating moments of peaceful calmness throughout the day.
To discover how your breathing patterns are affected by your activities, emotions, and thoughts, check in with your breath periodically. How do you breathe when you are waking to an alarm? Eating? Driving? Walking? Having a stressful moment? Hugging a loved one? Exercising or exerting yourself? Becoming sleepy? Lying down? Note when you sigh, take a deep breath, or yawn as these are ways your breath resets your body.
To improve our breathing, we must train our breathing muscles to exhale and inhale fully, just as we train other muscles to improve their strength and stamina. Full inhalations strengthen the diaphragm and give us more oxygen; complete exhalations lengthen the diaphragm, which removes restrictions in its muscle fibers, and empty the lungs of stale air. We must expel air before we are able to fully inhale. We must contract and relax the diaphragm to cultivate our awareness of its tensions, to develop its full range of motion, and to make breathing as effortless as possible. Through breathing exercises, we can strengthen, tone, and lengthen the diaphragm, lungs, and accessory breathing muscles.
Sit in a chair with your feet planted on the ground, your back straight, and your shoulders drawn back. Relax your abdomen and thighs. Count as you take a slow, smooth inhalation. Exhale for twice as many counts. Repeat for several minutes. As you take fuller inhalations and longer exhalations, observe your physical, emotional, and mental responses. Do you feel calm, or do you feel anxious and uncomfortable? If you feel uncomfortable in any way, return to normal breathing and then try again with shorter breathing cycles, inhaling for 2 or 3 counts. Is your mind wandering in an attempt to take your focus away from your breathing? If so, find enjoyment in just sensing your body and being aware of its responses. This exercise can also be practiced lying down, which supports the spine.
At the end of each inhalation and exhalation, there is a slight pause as your body shifts into the opposite action. After a slow and comfortable inhalation, extend this pause for a second or two before you exhale. Do the same after your exhalation. Consciously lengthening the pause at the end of each ex-/in-halation holds the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm in place for a longer period of time, which imprints that muscular memory on your brain. This trains your nervous system to use a different, more relaxed and complete breath pattern during your automatic breathing cycles.
Most of us live with pain – chronic headaches, backaches, or other muscle and joint pains. As humans, we adapt to pain by developing chronic tensions to suppress our discomforts; we avoid activities that are physically difficult and uncomfortable; and we learn to tune out our pains and tension so we can focus on the rest of our lives. Chronic pain and tension sap our energy, our good will, and our ability to lead life to its fullest.
Bodywork, through manipulation of the body's soft tissues, can ameliorate many muscle and joint pains. It also offers many other physical benefits, such as reducing stress, improving blood and lymph flow, speeding up tissue repair, improving sleep and breathing, and addressing many specific complaints. (See Benefits of Bodywork/ for more.) We deserve to live life without pain. Take care of yourself and get some bodywork.
Your Breath in Bodywork
On the massage table, you can actively participate in the session by focusing on your areas of pain and tension and using your breath to relax them. (You can also use this technique to relieve pain and to calm yourself before sleep.) Concentrating on your breath brings your full, yet relaxed, attention to your body's experience. This allows your nervous system to more fully assimilate changes in your body, improving the long-term effects of bodywork.
Many people habitually restrict their breath by holding in their abdomen. To become aware of tension you may be holding, Donna Farhi recommends that you "tense the abdomen for 7 seconds by pulling the muscles inward and then release. Do this a few times until you can feel the difference between tension and relaxation here." She recommends performing the same exercise with the muscles of your pelvic floor because "[t]he roots of the essential breath lie in allowing these lower areas of the body to open and release fully."
The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality through Essential Breath Work, by Donna Farhi, is a wealth of information about the breath and provides many great exploratory exercises through which you can uncover better, healthier breathing patterns.
Other references used for this newsletter are Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky.