A beginners' guide to breathing...

Yes, I know, if you’re reading this you’re probably not ‘new’ to breathing, but you might be a beginner when it comes to breathing in certain benefits.

Before continuing, close your eyes and just notice your natural breathing pattern right now. Is it fast, slow, shallow, deep, soft, forceful? Where is the most movement happening? Try to allow the breath to happen spontaneously as it does all day, every day. As soon as we focus our mind on something we have a natural instinct to control it, but just for a couple of minutes, can you resist that urge and just observe each inhale, every exhale?

This time around, try to consciously lengthen your inhales and exhales so you slow your breathing down. It might be helpful to count for 1, 2, 3, 4 as you breathe in, and the same as you breathe out. This just helps to keep your breathe balanced and even and also helps your mind from wandering to far away places.

Try to breathe using one continuous cycle of air moving in and out of your body. There’s no need for any pauses or retention right now. You want to breathe in a way that mimics the waves of the ocean lapping against the shore, so the inhale flows naturally into the exhale and vice-versa.

If you noticed that you had a tendency to hold the air in the very top of your chest, try to relax a little so you draw the air a little deeper towards your tummy. If you’re new to this, it might be helpful to imagine there’s a balloon inside your belly and as you inhale, you want to very gently inflate that balloon. As you exhale, softly draw the belly button back towards your spine helping to push the air back out again.

Do this 10 times.

How do you feel?

If you’ve ever been to a yoga class you’ll know that there’s a big emphasis on the breath. It’s what differentiates yoga from a simple fitness class. We’re not trying to get out of breath, we’re trying to get in to breath! Apologies for the horribly cheesy pun, but it’s true.

So what actually happens when you take a deep breath?

There’s a circuit in our brain that acts a little like a pacemaker for our breathing. When we breathe quickly, activity increases, and when we breathe slowly, activity decreases. This ‘activity’ is a little like having too many tabs/apps open at any one time. It becomes overwhelming for us and we cant process everything effectively.

Probably without realising it, when you hold the air in the top of your lungs, you’re leaving your body in a state of flight-or-fight response mode (your sympathetic nervous system). Always alert, always on edge, ready and waiting for the next thing to happen. But, when you breathe into the belly, you’re breathing using your diaphragm. This shifts the body over to the parasympathetic nervous system, our ‘rest and digest’ mode.

In this mode, messages are sent along the spine to our brain, actually reassuring us that it’s safe to relax.

In our parasympathetic state the following things happen:

  • Our muscles relax and release any excess tension

  • The body’s sense of calm is restored

  • Our resting heart rate slows

Our sympathetic state, however, initiates these physical responses:

  • Our body tenses up and becomes more anxious

  • Anything not critical to our survival shuts or slows down

  • Adrenaline is released

  • Our heart rate speeds up

In yoga, theres an importance placed on the body, brain and breath being connected. It’s why stressful thoughts can cause a tension headache and tight shoulders, for example. This can also work in our favour though; simply by taking a few deep breaths, we can relax our body and un-clutter our mind.

It’s not always easy to control your body or mind, but it is easy to take a deep breath, which, when you think about it in a holistic way, is essentially the same thing.

Put it into practice and see what happens. :)