Let your breathing transform the way you feel.
The journey of life begins with our first breath. Breathing accompanies every minute of our very existence. Although it is largely an unconscious and automatic process, if we pay attention to how we breathe, we can impact the way we feel physically and emotionally.
Along with its physiological purpose of carrying oxygen and life-giving nutrients to the blood and the rest of the body, breathing influences all the other vital processes, including autonomic nervous system’s response to stress, and in turn, our emotional states.
Just like the currents of the ocean get affected by the Earth movement, moon’s gravity, the wind, or the temperature, our breath gets influenced by the state of our health, our mood and mental states, and our external circumstances.
We all can often recognize that when we are under stress our breath becomes restricted and shallow. And when we are calm and content our breathing naturally deepens and slows. Our breathing pattern often mirrors the fluctuations of our mind and our lifestyle, often without our knowledge.
Yet we often take breathing for granted and don’t put much thought into it. Although breathing is largely unconscious, if we pay attention we can notice the subtle changes in our breath pattern affected by our emotional state. And by ‘manipulating’ our breathing pattern, in turn, we can affect the way we feel, both physically and emotionally.
Let’s look at a simple example of how this works. When I had flu as a child and had to get an injection, the nurse would say to me: “Take a deep breath, and exhale to relax your muscles”. This, she claimed, would make the injection less painful. I learnt quickly that this was the case by doing the opposite – contracting the muscles, which led to a more painful and stressful experience than necessary.
This simple example illustrates the link between the conscious breathing and the bodily response. By noticing that on an exhalation the body tends to relax, and the pain eases, more so if we put a thought into it, we learn that by attending to how we breathe in a given moment we can affect the way we feel physically.
Simply said, but what do we do in practice if we feel tension or aches in the body after long stressful day?
Begin with attending to how you breathe, without changing anything at first. Just notice your natural breathing rhythm, notice whether the breath is deep or shallow, slow or fast. Once you become aware of the quality of your breath, begin attending to how your breathing feels in your body. Feel the belly, ribcage, chest, and the back gently expanding on an inhalation, and softening, contracting and relaxing on an exhalation. Follow the breath in that way for a few rounds paying attention to how you feel. Next, begin paying a special attention to the quality of your exhale. Notice if you exhale all the air out, or hold the breath. Allow yourself to exhale fully, but don’t force anything. Pay attention to the pause in between your exhalation and before taking the next inhale. Embrace it! Once you are comfortable with this practice, see if you can slightly slow down your breathing but again, be gentle, and don’t force anything. By simply attending to the sensations in your body your breath will extend naturally and effortlessly in time.
Along the relief of physical discomfort, conscious breathing may lead to the lessening of various forms of psychological distress, including the psychological distress that accompanies the physical discomfort or pain. After all, it is difficult to feel happy when we are feeling aches and pains in the body. It is even more difficult to think about and concentrate on anything else than the body unless the physical discomfort is first eliminated.
The reverse also tends to be true. If we feel anxious or nervous, we tend to feel the stress accumulated in our bodies, i.e. after a stressful day in the office, you might feel tension and aches in the shoulders and neck. In more extreme cases people who have difficulties expressing their emotions, in general, tend to process or somatise them through their bodies e.i. through the symptoms such as IBS.
Attending to our breathing in times of stress is a simple way of emotional regulation and self-healing.
Conscious breathing is also a core element of every yoga class. Whether we are beginners or more experienced practitioners, synchronising the breathing with the movement in yoga eases our way into the postures making them more accessible and bearable.
For example, exhaling and energetically ‘directing’ the breath into the areas of tightness in the body while entering a seated forward bend pose (Pashimottanasana) will relax the body. Relaxing the back and hamstrings muscles, in turn, will make the pose easier to enter and more pleasant to keep. As it is the case with the unwanted injection, breathing out when entering the pose will make holding the pose more comfortable. For more experienced practitioners attending to breath during the practice will not only ease the bodily tensions but it will also help in anchoring the practitioner’s attention on the present moment.
When we do the opposite – holding the breath and tensing the muscles that take part in the pose – we restrict our movement, make the experience unnecessarily uncomfortable, inhibiting enjoyment of the practice.
The beauty of the learnings we gain through our yoga practice is that we can transfer it into our day-to-day lives. For example, when we experience a stressful situation or feel anxious we can simply attend to our breath. If we feel stress accumulating in the body – i.e. in the shoulders or neck – we can help ourselves by attending to our breath and directing it to the tensed places in the body.
Begin with watching your breath as it flows in and out through the nostrils naturally. Notice its quality, i.e. whether your breathing is deep, shallow, fast or slow. At first, refrain from changing your natural breathing pattern, simply observe it. After a few breaths like this see if you can begin slowing down your inhalations and exhalations slightly. Don’t strain or force it though, just gently encourage your breath to lengthen and deepen. When you are ready to attend to a particular part of your body where you feel tension, i.e. shoulders, simply say to yourself: ‘I am attending to my shoulders’ while inhaling, and say to yourself: ‘I am relaxing my shoulders, and all the little muscles surrounding them’ when exhaling.
Since all is required is to ‘talk’ to oneself and breath consciously we can do this simple exercise anywhere, whether standing or sitting at home, in a public place or walking. Three repetitions of this sequence should usually suffice to relax the affected area of the body.
We begin our life with our first breath. Our first breath is also our first movement. The simple practice of attending to our breath, while noticing the body’s response to it puts us in charge of how we feel in our body and mind. ‘Regulating’ breathing in that way may help to lessen a discomfort accumulated in the body and relax the mind.