Mindful breathing brings better health
Many health practitioners, yogis and spiritual groups have been exploring the effect of breathing on our health, mind and existential existence for thousands of years. Ancient cultures and religions have documented the connection of our breath to the search for a higher state of being or higher purpose. They learnt how an everyday subconscious mechanism (respiration) could be controlled, manipulated, shaped or distorted in order to achieve the ultimate goal of longevity and spiritual awakening. But the question remains, does mindful breathing actually lead to better health?
Researchers have been trying to quantify this answer for a long time and most have concluded that mindful breathing can influence our health by calming our nervous system, impacting many of our physiological functions. When we are more relaxed it stabilizes our heart rate, normalizes our blood pressure and allows us to focus, sleep and digest our food better. Studies from the Harvard Medical School, University of Taiwan and the Technical University of Munich focusing on breathing techniques and its effect on our overall cardiac function, have all shown positive physiological and neurological changes to our body when we pay attention to our breath, according to an article from Scientific America.
I started thinking about my breathing and all it could do to help my performance while training in competitive dance and martial arts, as a teenager and then later as a professional dancer. It wasn’t until I started working with people in my private Pilates and acupuncture practice that I realized a lot of people weren’t aware of their breath and the power it has over the health and function of their body and mind.
The Science of Breathing
The science of breathing is a bit complex, but the function of your organs to achieve this life-giving feat is pretty spectacular and quite ingenious – it is yin and yang in nature. During respiration many body parts rely on each other and are also impacted by each other. When one muscle group contracts, supporting or opposing muscles release, working synergistically to pump the air into and out of your body. Your diaphragm and lungs do the heavy lifting of inhaling and exhaling, assisted by your intercostal muscles, pelvic floor, abdominals and neck muscles. There is a natural rhythmic timing that happens when we breathe – it’s automatic, we don’t have to think about it, but there is also a natural movement that happens between our organs, bones, muscles, tissues and vessels. Take a second and place your hands on your breast bone, belly then hip bones and feel how they all move (sometimes even slightly) with each breath.
Muscles pull on your rib bones and your abdominals soften and lightly tighten to provide the space needed for your lungs and diaphragm to expand and contract. It is said that the diaphragm looks and moves much like a jellyfish as we breathe in and out. With each inhalation your lungs inflate like balloons and give your heart a little hug while your diaphragm descends downwards, pulled by long sinewy tendons into the upper abdominal cavity. When we exhale, the lungs deflate back to their resting shape as the diaphragm moves upwards back into it’s mushroom shape to fill the lower ribcage. This beautiful pas de deux between the lungs and diaphragm resembles a well-choreographed ballet; dipping, pulling, stretching, supporting and shifting together.
When we experience stress, injury, strong emotions or overthinking it can create tension within the body, reducing the space needed for these two important organs (the lungs and diaphragm) to ebb and flow properly. This can lead to a shallow breath pattern, which can potentially lead to an increase of blood pressure, a reduction in oxygen uptake and the expulsion of carbon dioxide, an increased feeling of anxiety, body weakness and rapid heartbeats. So creating a breathing routine can be just as important for some people as daily exercise.
How does traditional Chinese medicine view breathing?
From a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) viewpoint your lungs can be affected by emotions, such as grief or sadness, which can lead to an imbalance within that organ system. Ever notice when you are sad how your chest sinks, shoulders curl forward and you just want to roll up into a ball? Grief and sadness can affect your body, mind and spirit, leaving us with symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed, anxious, short of breath, insomnia, susceptible to colds, weak cough, weak voice and fatigue. If this becomes the case for you, seek help from a professional health practitioner such as an acupuncturist, psychotherapist and/or doctor.
How can you tap into more mindful breathing?
Mindful breathing is a great tool to use and there are a number of techniques for tapping into a more mindful breath. It doesn’t mean you have to sit and meditate for hours, or walk through a forest to be mindful, although that of course can help! You need only bring intentionality to your breathing, experience it rather than think about it. The great thing about tapping into a mindful breath is the ability to do it at any time, almost anywhere – while driving, working, walking, eating or brushing your teeth.
Before you start:
Deep calming breaths can provide much needed sustenance for the body to grow, flourish and thrive while reducing muscular tension and softening the mind. Here are a few images that can help you achieve mindful breathing:
To me mindful breathing is one of the keys to achieving whole body health, so take the time, every day, to tap into how your breath is supporting you.
Cindy is a registered acupuncturist, certified Pilates instructor, holistic nutritionist and a foodie. She works with her patients to support their whole body health, emphasizing self care, living a positive life and nourishing the body and mind. Cindy is the owner/creator of My Fit Over 50, a website dedicated to health of women through menopause.