How are you breathing today? Are you even aware of breathing? Now that I’ve made you aware, are you wondering if you’re breathing correctly, or should be breathing differently somehow?
Breathing is one of those automatic processes that we usually take for granted and are often unaware of, until we can’t breathe for some reason, or until someone or something brings it to our attention. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says: “If you’re breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what the condition of your body or its history.” I like to start my classes with this quote, and I often tell my students that “the breath knows how to breathe itself.” What we’re saying here is, relax! Don’t try to force yourself to breathe a particular way, and your breathing will likely settle into a natural rhythm.
However, it is also true that “no matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are – none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly.” That’s what James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, discovered in doing the research for his book. Reading it, I discovered a few things myself, which I’d like to share with you:
How we breathe matters
Although breathing is automatic, and we’ve been breathing all our lives, it’s possible we’re not breathing as optimally as we could. Turns out there really are better, and worse, ways to breathe. The most important of those is the pathway through which we breathe: the nose or the mouth. If you breathe mostly through the mouth, listen up: you are at higher risk for a host of health problems.
Are you a mouthbreather?
According to Nestor, 40% of today’s population suffers from chronic nasal obstruction, and slightly more than that are habitual mouthbreathers. Nasal obstruction, whether from a cold, allergies, or something else, allows bacteria to flourish. This contributes to more colds and sinus infections, as well as asthma, snoring, and sleep apnea. These conditions in turn make the body more susceptible to dental problems, immune disorders, and cardiac disorders, which if untreated can become life-threatening.
Another of Nestor’s discoveries is that the nostrils are exquisitely designed to filter the air that we breathe, protecting us from bacteria, viruses, dust, smoke, chemicals and other things that can be harmful to the body, while the mouth, having no air filter, cannot.
An important factor in breathing correctly (not part of Nestor’s research, but that I teach) is whether the diaphragm is engaged. The diaphragm is a muscle encircling the torso just below the ribcage, which moves like an upside-down umbrella, pulling down as we inhale and pushing up as we exhale. Breathing from the diaphragm, or “belly breathing,” stimulates the Vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. This lowers the arousal from the sympathetic branch, known as the “stress response,” and promotes “the relaxation response.”
To check if you are engaging the diaphragm, lie on your back, put a hand on your belly as you breathe, and see if the hand moves up and down, even slightly. When you breathe in this way, it also allows the lungs to expand fully and take in more oxygen.
It is possible for you to start right now to breathe better, in a healthy, restorative way. You don’t even need to take a mindfulness meditation class, or read Nestor’s book (though I recommend both). Simply making an effort to inhale only through the nostrils will help. What happens if you keep your mouth shut, inhaling and exhaling through the nose? If you’re congested, this might feel uncomfortable, but if you keep at it, you may find it gets easier.
Once you have learned to breathe in through the nostrils, and to belly breathe, you can experiment with changing the length of the exhalation. For example, inhaling to a count of three, then exhaling to a count of five. Longer exhalations are quite helpful to relieve anxiety. You can also begin to notice the pause between the inhalation and the exhalation, and the one at the end of each exhalation. Extending these pauses will also elicit a parasympathetic response and promote a calm, relaxed state.
Other breathing practices
There are many different kinds of breathing exercises, some from traditional Yoga teaching, like alternate nostril breathing, others from various forms of athletic conditioning, which people have learned to use to relieve stress, promote relaxation and sleep, as well as to increase energy, stamina, mental focus and concentration. Nestor gives some examples in his book, if you’re curious.
How mindfulness meditation leads to better breathing
Awareness of breath is one of the first practices taught in any mindfulness meditation class. All of the other practices build on this basic breath awareness. It is foundational, just as the breath is essential to us.
Mindfulness meditation, also known as Insight meditation or vipassana, doesn’t place as much emphasis on special breathing techniques as it does on simply bringing conscious awareness to the act of breathing. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to become a better breather. And if you’re not breathing correctly, mindfulness will bring that to your attention, and point you in the direction of correcting it.
I hope you’re breathing better already, and perhaps feeling calmer as well.