Taking a breath should be as simple as….breathing….right?
So why is it that, no matter how many times we remind ourselves (or are reminded) to ‘breathe’, we often find ourselves unconsciously holding in our air, or shallowly gasping for breath?
There are a hundred reasons why we forget to breathe properly, from stress, fear, anxiety and laziness, to excitement, joy and anticipation.
And while the body relies on inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide to keep us functioning, in order to maximize the effects of the life giving qualities of a blast of fresh air, we really need to put more thought into the technique of our breathing, as well as the function of it.
Used properly, focusing and controlling the way we breathe can make an enormous difference to our day.
Not only can it bring calm and centering to a troubled mind, it can even control pain and blood pressure. Our very health depends on HOW we breathe, not just that we do.
Take, for example, women in labour.
The Lamaze Method was developed by a French Obstetrician, Ferdinand Lamaze, and became popular all over the world as a way for women to remain focused and in charge whilst their bodies attempt to shed a fully developed (but still relatively small) human being through a passageway primarily accustomed to something less full of bones, shall we say.
Lamaze is all about understanding the centre of the pain, where it is coming from, what it feels like, how intense it is, how long it lasts, and- along with other techniques- uses long slow breaths, and measured counting in order for woman to remain in control during a rather hectic experience.
Anyone who has successfully used Lamaze might rightfully wonder why the breathing component is not taught to everyone as a way to understand pain and injury. Breaking a bone is not the same as giving birth, but panicked short sharp breathes taken during a time of trauma will invariably bring extra stress to an already stressful situation.
Being told to ‘remain calm’ never works if you have already lost control. It’s hard to ‘stay in the moment and breathe’ if no one has explained what to do when you’ve been in an accident and all you can think about is the pain and fear you are experiencing.
Luckily, you do not need to go through the experiences of actual childbirth in order to understand the rewards of deep breathing. Nor do you need to place yourself in harm’s way in order to benefit from the relaxation brought about by proper oxygen flow. Ask any yoga teacher, singer, dancer, sporting shooter or archer, martial artist, swimmer, stand-up comedian or public speaker and they will tell you about the power of getting it right.
Doctors note that slowing down your breath can also lower your blood pressure by as much as a third. Cardiac specialist studies have shown that patients who use controlled breathing can cut their reliance of medication by up to half within weeks of putting the techniques in play.
The best news is, there is nothing fancy you need to do, no clever positions to take, nothing to join or buy, and you can do this anywhere and at any time.
Either sit or stand comfortably, feet shoulder width apart if you are standing, or if you are reading this sitting, take care not to slump. Rest your arms on a table or at your side, and with your eyes either open or shut, inhale deeply and slowly through your nose for a count of 3, counting in your head as you go. Now exhale for the same count. Try this 5 times. Now take the count up to 4. Try this 5 times. If you are not feeling dizzy, try a count of 5, and then 6. If you do feel woozy, stop. Leave it for a few minutes and try again.
If you want to yawn, yawn. Your body is telling you that this style of oxygenation is new. It’s trying to adjust. That’s OK. Yawning lets lots of oxygen in and lots of carbon dioxide out in a big rush. If you’ve never thought about your breath before, you will need to retrain your system.
This type of meditative exercise is called Sami Vritti and is a great way to start. Even 2 minutes of this very easy style of deep breathing will make an enormous difference to your wellbeing. Your physical and mental health work on a parasympathetic system to make the best version of you. This means they work together, and they both require that air you are holding onto.
If you’d like to take it further, try lying on the floor and placing your hands on your stomach just under your ribs. Let them sit softly and take a very deep breath, trying to get your hands to move upwards. Remember, you are trying to get your diaphragm to move, not your chest, so it might take some concentration. When you feel your hands rise up, you are using your abdomen, not just your lungs. Do the same thing as above, try a count of 3, then move up to a longer count. Don’t cheat and use your stomach muscles to push out your hands, let the diaphragm work in isolation. When you think you know what that feels like, you can try this exercise standing up, or sitting down, but if you start using this technique laying down, you are more likely to recognise when the right body parts are being engaged.
This is called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, and is what Opera singers and athletes use to get the maximum performance from their breath.
If you are interested in something a little more hardcore, you could try Nadi Shodanna, which is a way to breathe using each nostril individually. This is one you might want some privacy for. Essentially, it’s the same as the other two, you count and breathe, but instead of using your nose as one ‘instrument’ you close off your left nostril with a finger and inhale only with your right, then swap, and exhale through your left. Yogi types say this is a very enriching way to breath as it actually leaves you a little ‘buzzy’ and energiaed, so this is not one to try just before trying to get to sleep.
If you’ve never been to a Lamaze class, you might be curious about controlling pain and not know how it’s done. You might have seen videos of women hissing and shouting, and yes, there is a bit of that. Basically, if you are in pain, you need to exhale very deliberately. Your body is designed to take up oxygen, so you won’t die. As soon as you have ‘pushed’ the pain out either with a hard hiss or very deliberate exhalation through your mouth, your body will force you to breathe in.
That’s fine, you are concentrating on the pain LEAVING your body, along with your breath, so focus on that. Use the effort of the breath to control the pain.
Incredibly, this works. As soon as you take control of where your directed breath is, you can focus on removing the panic around your distress. You might even feel angry with the pain, and that’s fine too, because you are going to send it out of your body. Lamaze uses counting, that will help you stay in the moment, and you will be back and not at the mercy of an uncontrolled desire to hyperventilate.
Using Lamaze to control pain is the only time being a mouth breather is an acceptable state of being.
For the rest of the time, use your nostrils and, when it all gets too much and life is a little too exciting, or you just need a break, take a breather- literally.