Why it's time to make your breath your BFF
I’ll bet you know a lot about your best friend. You know what her favourite colour is, how she likes her tea, her pet hates and whether she prefers camping or five-star holidays.
It seems crazy then that most of us know so little about a constant companion of a slightly different kind: the breath. Your breath is a lifelong force that accompanies you from the moment you enter the world and will be there, through thick and thin, to the very moment you leave.
And, like any friendship, the more the bond is nurtured, respected and treasured, the more rewarding and rich it can become.
Want more from this very special relationship? It’s time to get to know your breath.
So, what is breathing? Simply, breathing is the movement (through either the nose or the mouth) of air in and out of the lungs. Breathing is part of the more complex respiratory system which delivers oxygen via the inhalation to the bloodstream for use as fuel for the body. Air that leaves the body via the exhalation removes waste products including carbon dioxide.
Breathing is an automated function of the body: we don’t actually need to think about it to do it. Instead, the brain stem takes care of breathing, along with several other functions vital to staying alive such as heart rate, blood pressure and alertness. Intriguingly, breathing is the only one of these automated functions that we can also control voluntarily. The mind can steer the breathing when a different part of the brain (the motor cortex within the cerebral cortex) gets behind the wheel.
Mouth or nose: does it matter?
The nose is specifically designed for breathing so it’s much better for you than breathing through the mouth. The nostrils have fine hairs to filter out impurities; plus, air inhaled through the nose is warmed and moistened so it won’t irritate the sensitive airways. Breathing through the nose also helps regulate the volume of air you breathe so that it can best meet the body’s oxygen needs.
Mouth breathing, in contrast, dries out the mouth and can contribute to acidity, leading to cavities and gum disease.
One cycle of breath consists of an inhalation and an exhalation. We humans complete around 15 breath cycles every minute — that’s 21,600 breaths a day! Scientists have observed a link between breathing rates and life span, noting that large animals, such as elephants and tortoises, with a slow breathing rate of 3-5 breaths per minute live long lives while those with a fast breathing rate, like birds and rabbits, lived for only a few years.
Ancient yogis believed that each of us are granted a specific number of breaths for use over our entire lifetime.
Similarly, ancient yogis believed that each of us are granted a specific number of breaths for use over our entire lifetime. So, for a long life, it makes sense to measure out the breaths, slow down and use them wisely!
Mood and breathing
Our mood is influenced by the breath and vice versa. What’s your breathing like when you’re chilling out on the sofa? Likely, it’s slow, deep and rhythmic, reflecting a calm, content and relaxed state of mind. On the flip-side, breathing that is shallow, choppy, fast or erratic contributes to stress and anxious feelings. Recall a time when you felt super-excited or scared — chances are your breathing was quick, shallow and uneven.
Left and right sides
Ever noticed that one of your nostrils flows more freely than the other? This can be particularly apparent when you feel blocked up with a cold. When we breathe, either the right nostril dominates, or feels more open, or the left. You can determine which nostril is more open by gently blocking one with the thumb or finger and observing the flow of the open nostril. Swap sides and see which side feels clearer.
The yogis believe that when the right nostril is breathing more freely we are more influenced by the sympathetic nervous system. Under this influence, we are more alert, active and aroused. Dominance in the left nostril occurs when we are feeling centred, relaxed and at ease. The dominance switches sides automatically around every 20 minutes during the day.
Yoga and the breath
The breath is central to the yogic practice of pranayama. In Sanskrit, prana means life force and refers to the vital life source of the universe and that which also sustains the body. Pranayama uses the mind to focus on patterns of the breath to help cultivate and channel prana.
There are numerous pranayama techniques ranging from simply observing the natural flow of breath to counting, holding and lengthening breathing patterns. The aim of many of these techniques is to create feelings of peace and calm by stimulating the healing parasympathetic branch of the nervous system.
A calming practice to get to know your breath
Try this simple breath-observation exercise to get to know your breath a little better.
- Sit comfortably with a tall spine.
- Relax your face: eyes, jawline, tongue.
- Descend the shoulders away from the ears.
- Take your awareness to your nostrils and start to notice the breath.
- Try not to change your breath in any way; with a relaxed attitude, simply observe the natural breath flowing in and out of the nostrils.
- Notice the speed of the breath — does it feel fast or slow?
- Notice the depth of the breath — does it feel shallow or deep?
- Notice the length — does your breath feel long or short?
- Notice it’s texture — smooth or rough?
- Does it feel easy to breath through the nostrils or is there some congestion?
- What about the temperature of the breath? Which feels warmer, the breath on the inhale or on the exhale?
Simply observe these characteristics for a few minutes.
When you feel ready, silently thank your breath for nurturing your body, mind and spirit every single day.
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