Plus it's the single most useful tool we have for stress management, and immediately available to us all.
So how we breathe is very important.
But most of us breathe poorly: we tend to over-breathe, taking three or four breaths using only the upper part of our lung capacity, when one good breath using all would serve us better. This shallow breathing is very tiring, not only because we expend unnecessary energy to do so, but because we reduce our oxygen intake per breath. In its extreme form, over-breathing becomes hyperventilation, which can lead to panic attacks.
Breathing isn't just about taking oxygen in either, it's also about getting rid of carbon dioxide from our bodies. Shallow breathing alters the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the blood making it more acidic, and over time our muscles feel chronically tired and weakened from this acidic effect. Tired muscles also overcompensate by tensing up, increasing physical tension overall, which makes us feel emotionally tense and stressed.
Shallow breathing is also part of our 'fight or flight' response, causing the secretion of stress hormones. So in the same way that shallow breathing actually makes us more stressed than we might otherwise feel, so breathing more calmly will de-stress us, because the very act of consciously regulating our breathing sends a message from the body to the brain that everything is now OK, the emergency is over, and it can stop pumping out all that unnecessary adrenalin and cortisol!
Poor breathing patterns can set up their own vicious circle, for sure - and affect us both physically and emotionally. But the great news is that one simple change, how you breathe, can make one huge difference to how you feel.
Try the following exercise to get you started
- lie comfortably on the floor, knees bent, chin tucked in - what Alexander Technique teachers call the 'constructive rest position' - or sit upright in a chair, legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor
- consciously relax your neck and drop your shoulders, rest your arms by your sides with your palms turned upwards
- breathe long and gently through your nose, into your belly until you see it gently rise, for a slow count of 5
- pause, and hold that breath for a count of 5, then gently exhale through your mouth for another count of 5
- while doing this, try to clear your mind of all other thoughts, or if this is difficult close your eyes and visualise a pebble dropping into a pool of water and gently sinking down
- repeat this breathing cycle 10 times, then see how your regular breathing adjusts
- you can also use this breathing technique at any time you feel tense or stressed, or as the basis of any meditation practice
Bear in mind that poor posture always cramps our breathing, while tension in the muscle with which we breathe, the diaphragm - the sheet of muscle that divides the chest from the abdominal cavity - will also create tension around the aorta, the main artery carrying blood through the centre of our bodies. Tension around the aorta can also elevate blood pressure.
So there are just too many good reasons why you should take a look at your breathing and change it for the better.
Many physical activities also help improve breathing techniques - singing, swimming, T'ai Chi, yoga, walking meditations, playing a musical (wind) instrument, for example - but improving your breathing will immediately improve your overall health and wellbeing, your mental focus... and your concentration!