We can live for long periods without eating, drinking or sleeping, but if we can not breathe, we die within a few minutes. Breath comprises the first and last action of our lives; but how much attention do we give to our breath?
Most of us don’t think twice about our breathing. It’s an automatic practice controlled by the medulla oblongata, the most primeval part of the brain. On average, we breathe 20,000 times a day.
Breathing supplies our body’s organs with oxygen,which can not be stored and must be replenished continuously and steadily. Cells require oxygen to break down complex organic substrates like carbohydrates (from food) to produce energy. Oxygen is necessary for brain function, and the energy produced by oxygen is required for every action of our daily life. When we deprive our body of fresh oxygen through prolonged breath retention, or even minimally through restricted or shallow breathing, our blood must be moved more quickly through the body in order to transport less oxygen. Maximizing our oxygen intake through proper breathing is therefore important.
With our breath, we also rid the body of waste products, allergens, and toxins. These toxins and wastes can easily stagnate in our bodies and damage our vital functions.
Unfortunately, most of us use only one third of our actual breathing capacity in daily life.
Signs of poor breathing:
Holding breath at times (when concentrating or highly emotional)
Feeling the need for a long breath or frequent yawning
Having very short breath
Breathing from the chest rather than the belly (diaphragm)
Running out of breath when moving or talking
Breath is also the link between body and our mind
When the breath is short, quick or shallow, our minds will be nervous and agitated. It may be difficult to think clearly.
When the breath is irregular the mind is anxious and disturbed. the brain may feel “foggy”. Breathing deeply and slowly instantly calms us down mentally as well as physically.
Very often our mind is thinking about something (or many things) while our body is doing something else. As a result, our mind and our body are not unified. Bringing attention to the breath can help yoke together body and mind, bringing equanimity and peacefulness to both.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices
Try it now- take a moment to focus on your breathing.
Sit comfortably but with a tall spine, or lie flat on the floor
Gently close the mouth, let the tongue float, relax the jaw, and close your eyes or soften your gaze.
Place the tip of your finger at the underside tip of your nose and very lightly press. This helps to open nasal passages
Breathe fully from your nose- try a slow 4-count inhale to start. Imagine the breath entering your belly, expanding your ribcage, and lifting your chest.
Let the exhale be long (at least a 4 count, perhaps as much as 6 counts) and even.
Notice any areas of the breath that don’t feel smooth and even. Can you release any tension in that part of the body? Does giving attention to the breath without judgement help to smooth it out?
Allow yourself to return to an unobserved breath whenever you’re ready. Pause for a moment and scan your mind and body. Did focusing on smooth, even, slower breath have any impact on you?
Follow Karen in the video below to experience a full and calming breathing practice.