Better Health with Mindful Breathing
Many health practitioners, yogis and spiritual groups have been exploring the effect of breathing on your health, mind and existential existence for thousands of years. Ancient cultures and religions have documented the connection of your 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 your health by calming your nervous system, impacting many of your physiological functions.
When you are more relaxed mindful breathing:
- stabilizes your heart rate
- normalizes your blood pressure
- allows you to focus
- helps you sleep better
- helps you digest better
Studies from the Harvard Medical School, University of Taiwan and the Technical University of Munich focused on breathing techniques and its effect on overall cardiac function. According to an article from Scientific America, they have all shown mindful breathing offers positive physiological and neurological changes to your body. Keep reading and you’ll find some simple exercises below that will help you tap into more mindful breathing!
My Personal Exploration with Breathing
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 performing at the Stratford Festival in Canada.
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 breathing well. However with a little practice and daily checkins, most clients improved their breathing and felt so much better.
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 you breathe – it’s automatic, you don’t have to think about it, but there is also a natural movement that happens between your 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 you 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 you 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 you experience stress, injury, strong emotions or overthinking it can create tension within your 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.