Conscious Awareness of Breath
by Charlotte Watts
We all breathe, all the time – not breathing is a pretty good sign we’re not alive any more and yet so many people invest little awareness in this vital act. Yes, our bodies will get on with it without any conscious effort, but we do have some vital input to make if we want to engage with the breathing patterns that best serve our good health.
Breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system, the branch that just gets on with the business of regulating the rhythm of our body systems without us getting involved. Blood pressure, heart beat, bowel movements all happen without us thinking about them. Compare this to moving your arms or tilting your head – yes, you automatically do these to move from one place to another or execute and action, but you could also wave your arms about at different speeds should you want to.
Less obvious is how we can consciously affect how we breathe and the knock-on effects of this throughout all body systems. When we spend some time simply observing breathing in and out, we can see that the breath tends to slow down and then the body follows by relaxing and letting go of muscle contractions. There is often a sense of relief when we allow this to happen. As soon as we begin to move, the breath speeds up to increase circulation to muscles and deliver energy and nutrients to sustain movement.
Problems arise when this is done with more energy than is needed. When we tense the shoulders and jaw we are telling our bodies the movement is in response to a perceived danger and the heart beat rises. If we keep soft in the body and move in cadence with the breath, muscles keep supplied and can hold positions with ease for longer.
Staying soft allows us to use our primary breathing muscles, the diaphragm and abdomen to breathe. We can become habitually used to wasting energy involving the secondary breathing muscles, the shoulders and upper chest. These need only really be engaged in emergency situations in the fight-or-flight response, but constant stimulus in the modern world keeps us simmering with low-level stress. Add poor postural habits and sitting on chairs, and it’s not surprising that our shoulders are creeping up around our ears most of the time.
All of this tends us to shallow breathing rather than long, full breaths that fully fill and empty the lungs. In the face of stress we often breathe in over the end of the out-breath, never fully letting go right to the end of the breath. As the exhale signals the nervous system to let go and move towards calm, it is not surprising that stress becomes a vicious cycle and we can often struggle to ‘catch our breath’.
The downsides to these are many. Breathing is how we regulate many crucial physical mechanisms and disordered breathing is a very real root for many health concerns:
- Poor oxygen flow around the body can result in lowered metabolic rate and a tendency to put on weight and tire easily.
- Less oxygen means more insulin needs to be produced to get sugars from the food we eat efficiently into cells. Higher insulin levels are linked to degenerative disease and inflammation. They can also lead to Type 2 diabetes when a high sugar diet and little exercise are also involved. Insulin also increases our tendency to store fat.
- Full breathing is required to move the body’s lymphatic system and allow full detoxification. Holding on to toxins can contribute to bloating, cravings and constipation.
- Little emphasis on ensuring calm breathing can allow levels of the stress hormone cortisol to rise. High levels tend to make us feel irritable, tired, groggy and over time can lead to insomnia, poor memory and concentration and building up fat around the waist.
- Our breathing becomes shallower in the face of pollution and as we grow older so it is vital to stay conscious of breathing deeply and fully – regular attention to breathing as fully as we naturally can helps to instil this capacity.
See Chapter 11 ‘Calm for Life’ in The De-Stress Diet and listen to Charlotte’s Breathing Audio for extra guidance.