Just Breathe

There is something simple you are doing right now that holds great power. It can positively affect your digestion, circulation, and stress levels. It has the potential to help you feel better. You are breathing!

Because breathing can be done both consciously and unconsciously, your respiratory system acts as a bridge between your voluntary and involuntary systems. Breathing with awareness allows you to influence physiological functions that are involuntary. Isn’t that amazing?

Most of our bodily functions are involuntary or unconscious. This is a blessing. Can you imagine having to think your way through digesting a meal, distributing nutrients, and processing waste? Without having to consciously think about it, your digestive system breaks down food for absorption. Your immune system responds on your behalf to minuscule intruders and major traumas. Your lungs oxygenate your blood, and your heart keeps your blood in circulation. However, you can give those processes a positive boost by working with your breath on a consistent basis. Perhaps at least as often as you brush your teeth.

Two involuntary functions of the nervous system are the stress response and the relaxation response. The stress response is summed up by the phrase “fight or flight.” Its purpose is to keep us safe in the face of danger, and prepare us for action. When the stress response is activated, blood flow is directed away from the organs, readying our limbs for fight or flight. It also results in increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased blood sugar, and decreased immune response. At the other end of the spectrum is the relaxation response, also known as “rest and digest.” It results primarily in decreased blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Involuntary nervous system functions such as the stress and relaxation responses are not usually under voluntary control.

But through the amazing portal of the breath, they can be influenced. As stated by Dr. Andrew Weil, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona: “Breathing is the only function through which you can influence the involuntary nervous system. That is, you can establish rhythms of breathing with your voluntary nerves and muscles that will affect the involuntary nervous system. Gradual repetitive input of the right sort of rhythms reduces imbalances in the nervous system, which are the root cause of many different disorders.” Conscious breathing allows you to cultivate the relaxation response, and shifts you from being reactive to being responsive.

Whenever you think to do so, make your breath slower, deeper, quieter, and more regular. Do this regularly, and enjoy the many benefits that are available to you by simply breathing. Breathing with awareness can help you slow down, shift your mood, relax, and positively influence your overall health.

Anything we regularly practice becomes more ingrained over time. Our habits, both healthy and unhealthy, shape our minds and muscles. When you practice breathing consciously, the healthy rhythms you establish in your voluntary nerves and muscles have a positive effect on your involuntary nerves and muscles. Breathing with awareness can help you slow down, shift your mood, relax, and positively influence your overall health.

Since breathing can be done unconsciously or consciously, consistently working with your breath allows you to positively influence involuntary processes such as digestion and circulation. Because the benefits of conscious breathing are so immense, I’d like to share three simple breathing practices you can try out for yourself. If you experience discomfort, pause and breathe normally. In the beginning stages of the practice, feeling a little light-headed is not unusual but should decrease over time.

(1) Equal Duration Breathing. Breathe in and out through your nose for the same number of counts. The length of time you breathe in and out can be adjusted to fit your lung capacity and comfort level. I recommend starting with a four-second inhalation, and a four-second exhalation. Do this for at least one minute. With continued practice, you can work on increasing your lung capacity by slowly increasing the length of your inhalation and exhalation. Equal Duration Breathing calms the busyness of the mind.

(2) Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 Breath. Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, on the ridge of tissue just behind your front teeth. Breathe in through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and breathe out through your mouth for eight counts. Repeat the pattern four times total, then breathe normally. This breathing technique is very effective at reducing anxiety, cravings, and stress. You can learn more by watching a short video on Dr. Weil’s website titled “The 4-7-8 Breath: Health Benefits and Demonstration.”

(3) The Bumble Bee. Plug your ears with your thumbs. Close your eyes and cover them with your fingers. Breath in through your nose. As you breath out through your nose, make a humming sound (mmmmmmm). Breathe in silently. Breathe out humming. The Bumble Bee is soothing, calming, and can help with insomnia. Children especially love the Bumble Bee.

A great time to practice one or more of these breathing techniques is first thing in the morning and/or at bedtime. Remember that the power of conscious breathing increases with consistent practice, and that your breath is always there to help you through life’s difficult moments.