The Importance of the Breath.

Our breath. It is literally the Alpha and Omega of our life: When we are born we take our first breath and our last breath is synonymous with us dying. Standard respiration is a basic requirement of us staying alive: When we breathe in and fresh air fills our lungs, our blood gets enriched with oxygen. When we breathe out, carbon dioxide is removed from our body. Once this process gets halted only for a few minutes we are in deep trouble.

We take about 20,000 breaths per day. Every. Single. Day. of our lives.Fortunately, breathing is an automatic bodily function so we don’t have to consciously concentrate on it. We can, however, consciously stop breathing when we literally “hold our breath” as we dive under water or experience an unpleasant smell. Or when we learn some really bad news.

Here are a number of very good reasons why we would want to integrate conscious breathing into our everyday lives. 

It calms you down.

Deep breathing can help with anxiety, managing stress, improving focus, better sleep, faster recovery. We can “breathe through” pain to some extent. It keeps our lungs elastic as it increases lung capacity. It slows your heartbeat and can over time even lower your blood pressure. It reduces muscle tension and improves mental clarity.

Slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for resting. The vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system regulates our mood, digestion and heart rate and the amount of oxygen provided to the brain and other organs. However, we often over-stimulate our sympathetic nervous system, responsible for flight/ fight/ freeze responses, keeping us on high alert, pumping adrenaline into our bloodstream. While this reaction is crucial for survival, it is rather detrimental when it regularly occurs in non-life-threatening situations because your body has forgotten how to distinguish between a real and a perceived threat.

Mouth or nose?

Generally, nose breathing is considered more beneficial as it filters out dust and allergens also warms and humidifies air. The more erect and relaxed our posture, the more easily our breath will flow. If you’re sitting slumped down in your office chair, you will notice how shallow and short your breaths are (if you even notice at all) because your abdomen and rib cage are unable to expand. If you are standing up, however, there is much more room for fresh air to enter your body and fill your lung cavities.

In Forrest Yoga we practise different Pranayama techniques, most commonly Ujjayi breath [LINK TO BASIC MOVES ARTICLE]. Inhalation and exhalation are performed through the nose with the exception of Lion’s Breath, where we loudly exhale through the mouth.

In Ujjayi breath we make a sound that is often described as “sea noise”, like waves rolling in and out on a beach, as we gently constrict the opening of the throat to create some resistance as we pull the air through. We aim to continue to breathe that way throughout our practice, always finding our breath again.

We also strive to use all parts of the lung, not only the front. That’s why we expand our ribs to the sides and will “breathe to the back of the heart”. The focus is not on stretching out the belly but breathing in a centred way.

A little exercise.

Sit or lay down and put one hand on your belly and one on your heart. Inhale into your belly. You will notice your diaphragm (what is a diaphragm) moving down, thus increasing the space in your chest cavity so your lungs can expand freely. Exhale, gently drawing your belly in. Notice how your diaphragm and rib muscles relax. Your lungs deflate not dissimilar to a balloon. Breathing out should not require any effort (this is also how mouth-to-mouth works).

Breathe in again, now into your upper body. Feel the ribcage expand towards the hand that’s on your heart as well as to the sides.

Especially in high-stress situations we should more often than not take those few minutes and breathe deeply. You’ll immediately notice the difference.

So next time someone tells you to “just take a deep breath”, instead of thinking of your well.meaning colleague as a nuisance (at the best of times), thank him or her and do just that. Because you know it’s more than “just” a deep breath and that they are actually reminding you to do something utterly beneficial for your health and wellbeing.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Sivananda Breath

Box Breathing 4-4-4(-4)