Working with the Breath (or, Breath where have you been all my life?)

There is a good reason that the title of this term’s theme has a subtitle. I am surprised how many times I have heard from students that they are a “bad/terrible/incorrect” breather. Being told you’re bad at something that keeps you alive is a gross exaggeration of usually very slight and adjustable imbalances. Thinking that you are a “bad breather” will not help you to relax enough to refine your breath. For the vast majority of the time we are not aware of our breath, yet we continue to get along OK. We have a pattern when we are asleep or unconscious that it perfectly fine most of the time. Even when we are up and moving around, for most people without severe respiratory conditions whatever breathing we are doing is pretty good.

Together with a beating heart, breathing is the #1 process that keeps us alive. Unlike our heartbeat, we can consciously modify our breathing but it’s so clever that if we try to modify it too much (e.g. holding for a long time) it will throw up its hands and take over. Apart from the basic function of delivering oxygen to the cells to keep us going, the breath is also a bridge between body and mind. Since we have the ability to carefully modify the breath this presents us with an opportunity to tweak some breathing habits to improve the way we move and feel.

When the body is in a certain way, or when we are in a certain frame of mind we will tend towards a certain type of breathing. It also works the other way: subtly and carefully modifying the breath will bring a change to body and mind.

Belly Breathing  While we are physically supported and at rest, “abdominal” or “belly” or “diaphragmatic” breathing is often present and goes along with all the other resting functions like increased digestion, muscle relaxation, a quiet contented mood and perhaps a bit of sleepiness.  The diaphragm lowers down towards the abdomen as the inhale happens and this pushes the muscle and viscera up and out, causing it to look like the breath is actually moving into the belly…hence the name.  Natural belly breathing is often very shallow, as we’re not using up a whole lot of oxygen in a supported restful state.

Rib breathing  As we sit, stand, start to move our spine require support so the abdominal muscles increasingly engage, the abdomen becomes firmer and this inhibits the movement of the diaphragm onto the abdominal cavity, so belly breathing becomes less easy. Blood is diverted away from digestion to muscles involved in movement and we might need larger breaths to support the demand for oxygen, so our ribs become more active and our belly breathing disappears and becomes rib or thoracic breathing. As we are moving about we become more mentally extroverted (evolutionary advantage in not bumping into unexpected things!). We are alert, but not alarmed. The mind is awake and can smoothly move focus from one thing to another depending on the situation.

Collarbone BreathingFor the vast majority of our bodies’ evolutionary history, an extremely stressful situation involved being chased/attacked/eaten. A modern equivalent might be if we cross a busy road and suddenly have to dodge a car. We need to pull out all stops to put on short bursts of speed and strength. Apart from all the other physiological changes, the breath that supports this is an extension of rib breathing, where total lung volume is used, even up under the collarbones. The breath is full and quick, stress hormones are coursing through our systems, and all our senses are turned up to the max. We may not be aware of ourselves or focus at all…all brainpower is being diverted to survival. After the emergency is over we might notice we are almost “panting”.

All of these breathing patterns support us beautifully in different situations. Various martial arts employ different types of breathing to support their purpose. Even the quieter ones like Tai Chi and Qigong use a more energising breath – a nod to the heritage of the practice for being prepared to defend. Holding the breath also has its uses, for example in the controlled lifts of classical ballet.

The interesting thing is that there is such a strong link between body, breath and mind that intentionally altering the breathing to one of these patterns, despite the situation, can bring on the linked physical and emotional aspects of the matching situation. As an extreme example, if you are lying relaxed and supported but apply vigorous rib breathing or even full fast collarbone breathing, you may start to feel your muscles engage, an urge to move. There might be a sense that you should look around and position yourself more upright. The altered breathing pattern is alerting your system to “threat”.

In a more common example, many of us habitually carry around residual muscle tension where muscles do not disengage when they are not in use. Common places to hold muscle tension are the shoulders and neck, the diaphragm, abdomen, lower back, hips and pelvic floor. Even when our bodies are totally supported in a lounge chair, or lying on the yoga mat, or in bed, we can be holding on unconsciously. This could be interpreted as a very low-level “threat” situation by the system. If you are very aware, you might notice the breathing more in the chest than the belly. Here you can use your knowledge that breath links body and mood and gently apply belly breathing. After some practice, it is possible to remind the body that belly breathing goes with muscles relaxing, goes with winding down of the mind, goes with getting sleepy, etc. And all these will start to follow.

Reduction of stress while you learn to refine breathing is very, very important. The only way it will work is if you take the pressure off yourself. Practise without pushing or berating yourself. Be very sensitive to how your body and mind is reacting. Remember, stress brings on a certain breathing pattern that might not be appropriate for every situation. Now you can see why being told you are not a “good” breather is both generally inaccurate and counterproductive to stress reduction!

The best outcome for a term on breath would be to have the most appropriate breathing to support each circumstance whether we are resting, vigorously exercising, holding a strong pose, facing an emotional challenge, concentrating, or needing to switch off.  So there you are; the breath has been with you all your life and has the capacity to support your every move and mood. If you can remember to work in this way, then the best breath for the moment will quickly become natural for you.