Developing breath awareness, and learning to breathe properly, is one of the easiest ways to improve your mental and physical health.
It is a great testament to our ability to make things harder than they need to be that we overlook this banal, commonplace thing, that is right underneath our noses.
Habitually breathing high into the chest; breathing too fast; shallow breathing; these are some of our favorite methods of scuppering the once perfect process. And as Donna Farhi, author of The Breathing Book says, “The unconsciously altered breath allows us to survive, but it does not allow us to thrive.”
But this post is not a ‘how to’ guide. When it comes to our breath, we do not need a new technique that we can try for a bit, and promptly lose interest in.
Instead, we want to return to a way of breathing that is calm and regular, flexible and spontaneous. To do that we need to undo some habits that have crept in.
Unlike some of the other things I suggest you do, the process of developing breath awareness is very rewarding. It is a voyage of self-discovery! Enjoy.
But firstly in case you need convincing, a minuscule selection of research on the importance of breath:
- In one study, four key emotional states – joy, anger, fear, and sadness – were linked to distinct breathing patterns. The researchers found that they could make people feel these emotions by teaching them to breathe in the patterns.
- Scientists that studied 45 people under a lot of stress (caregivers), performing a 12 minute breathing and chanting exercise (Kirtan Kriya meditation techniques if you’re interested) daily for 8 weeks, showed positive health genetic engineering and a slowing down of the aging process.
Why you need to stop holding your belly in (now)
We regress with our breathing in several different ways (more on that below). I’m highlighting this one just because you’re vain and so am I. But since learning about proper breathing, I refuse to hold my stomach in any longer, and I suggest you do the same.
Because breathing this way forces us to use our secondary respiratory muscles instead of our primary ones. This is deeply tiring and inefficient.
Once you start to let yourself breathe in a way that makes you feel good – deep, indulgent belly breathes – the satisfaction is phenomenal, trust me.
In free breathing, your belly expands first
Have you ever sat with a child whilst they are sleeping? They breathe with their whole bodies. It is kind of cool.
Free breathing has the following characteristics:
- Your whole body oscillates – the movement of air travels sequentially through the body from the center to the periphery.
- It is diaphragmatic – arises predominantly through the action of the central diaphragm rather than higher up.
- Internal origination – breath arises from within rather than being pulled inside mechanically.
- Multi-directional – breath expands in all directions.
- Calm and regular.
What kind of breather are you?
Here are some common categories of non optimal breathing, along with their associated mental and physical states:
- Chest breathing – uses secondary respiratory muscles instead of primary. Happens because of habituated stress reactions and cultural tradition of meeting ideal body image.
- Reverse breathing – where your abdomen moves in on the inhalation and out on the exhalation. (To detect this one, I suggest you watch your body move rather than try to feel the breath).
- Hyperventilation – breathing quickly regardless of what we are doing. Natural consequence of chest breathing.
- Throat holding – happens when we are overwhelmed with a strong emotion.
- Breath grabbing/snatching – denying the pause between the breath its glorious moment in the limelight. Watch how you do it in life, too.
- Frozen breathing – where the movement of breathing never reaches the surface of our bodies. Said to be a common pattern in those who are goal oriented. Also a consequence of living in fear for an extended period.
Weirdly, we often choose to be around people who breathe similarly to us – we equate them with having the same values.
Conversely we might find ourselves compelled by those that breathe very differently to us, who are pointing to a way of being that we long for. Spending time around people that give themselves room to breathe in their lives can be contagious.
Okay so what can we do? Two things.
Step 1 to better breath awareness: A breathing inquiry
The first step in addressing any breathing maladies is becoming lavishly well acquainted with your breathing. Get into a comfortable position (lying down or comfortable seated position) and try to discover:
- The location of the breath (its movement).
- The origin of the breath.
- Its frequency.
- The phrasing of the breath.
- The texture of the breath.
- Its depth.
- The quality of the breath.
You also want to observe your breathing at different points of the day and in different situations. Do you catch yourself holding your breath whilst writing emails? Or driving?
Start to become away of when your breathing patterns happen.
Step 2 to better breath awareness: Practice belly breathing again
Since all of the patterns described above involve restricting diaphragmatic (or belly) breathing, that’s what we want to give our attention to strengthening. Here is a tutorial explaining how.
Special focused breathing exercises
There are many specific breathing exercises you can try to change your state.
They are an under-valued, highly effective (and free!) way to energize, detox, focus, improve sleep and lesson anxiety, among other things. The 4-7-8 and alternate nostril breathing techniques in particular are ones for everyone to know about. Along with Donna who I mention above, Andrew Weil is my favorite educator on breathing.
Final thoughts on breath awareness
When you deny and disown, the first thing you do is stop breathing. When you accept, you relax and breathe into—you open; you do not shut down – Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist and author.
Any activity that promotes self reflection has the potential to be life-changing. Breathing is no different.
Taking the time to breathe and to absorb and assess what is important is a revolutionary act of self knowledge and empowerment.
Knowing about your breath can give you a clearer perception of your feelings and emotions. And having a sharper understanding of those is less and less a ‘nice to have’, and more and more a necessity to function in this world.