Why bother with breath?
Exactly, why would you?
You are breathing, so what is there to bother about?
Then again, perhaps it’s not that straightforward.
In the east there are traditions around the study of the breath and its use. You may have heard of yogis who have survived months after being buried alive by controlling their breath, in ways that are completely incomprehensible to us. Why is it so important to them in any case? Why do they bother to spend years studying it in eastern monasteries?
Yet, in the west we are now increasingly coming to an understanding of how we can use the breath to help us improve our overall health. Recent research has indicated that bad breathing can be a factor in heart disease.
So, what does it mean, to breathe badly? Basically, it means that we are not using our lungs fully when we are breathing. Some of us have developed bad habits that result in the amount of air coming into the body being restricted. We often breathe through the mouth rather than the nose. So what? Why does it matter?
The quantity of air that we take into the body is important; not enough air means that there is insufficient oxygen to meet the energy demands of your body, which will result in it working less efficiently over time. In order to achieve this, we need to be employing normally what is called diaphragmatic breathing, ie breathing to the lower levels of the lungs. Not only will this help the body to work more efficiently but it can also help, with relaxation work, to relieve high blood pressure, anxiety states and stress. Often when people are anxious, and or stressed, they will breathe only into their chest restricting oxygen and thereby feeding their condition still further. If we know how to breathe deeply into our lungs we can begin to regain some control over our fears and anxieties.
In the same way that many of us do not pay any attention to our breath, we tend to ignore the nose and its functions, in the same way. In fact the nose is an amazing bit of kit. We use the nose, instead of the mouth to pull the air in, and it is 150% of what it would be to move the air through the mouth, and we breathe eighteen to twenty thousand times a day. Quite a bit more work for the nose, but why?
Simply put, the nose does more that just let the air in. It filters the airborne pollutants that are carried in the air and it warms the air before it hits the lungs. These are just two of several useful functions that it carries out.
So what can we do? Breathing can be voluntary of involuntary, ie we can do it without being aware of it or we can bring it under our control. There are exercises that we can do, either watching the breath or controlling the breath. By doing breath control exercises we can learn to calm ourselves, and or, increase our energy levels. By spending time watching the breath, we can often cause it, by this action alone, to become deeper and slower thereby enhancing the function of breathing.
The following is an exercise for watching the breath which should help to sensitise you to the breathing process. You might also feel calmer and more focussed at the end of it. It is worth doing it once a day, so go ahead and try it. Would love to know if it works for you, so post your comments/questions on Ucubed and I will look out for them.
Watching the breath
Lie on back with knees bent and feet flat on floor. Swivel your feet so that your big toes are closer together than your inner heels, then lean your knees in together so holding them in place is effortless. Have your arms out to the side, palms facing down. Close your eyes.
Give your full attention to your breathing. Can you feel where your breath originates? Observe which part of your body moves first as you breathe in. What happens next? Observe the sequence of your body’s movement when you inhale. Feel what happens to the lower and upper abdomen. How do the rib cage and chest work? Can you feel anything happening at the back? What happens to the shoulders, throat, face and nostrils? Does anything change at the pelvis?
Absorb yourself completely in your breath. You are your breath and your breath is you. It rises and falls with the rhythm of the ocean waves.
Now turn your attention to the out breath. From where do you exhale? Which part of the body begins the movement? Where does your exhalation end? Are the movements in the torso as clearly demarcated as in your inhalation? Accept the support of the earth each time. Don’t shrink but let yourself sink in.
Count the length of your in and out breaths. Which is longer? Does one come more easily to you? Become aware of the quality of the breath. Is it shallow or deep? How rhythmic does it feel? Does it feel smooth or course? Is it graceful and round or are there some parts that feel jerky or jagged? Does it feel soothing?
Often we don’t breathe out fully, but hurry onto the next exhalation. Take the time to flow the entire length of the exhalation. Stay with it. Patiently wait until it is finished before you take your next breath. It takes some time to release all the used air from the lungs. There is no need to tighten any muscles to squeeze the last air out. Jut be patient and let it keep flowing out. Whenever you feel you are trying too hard, release the effort.
Now become aware of the time at the end of the exhalation, before the next inhalation begins. There is a brief moment before the lungs call for air. Don’t grab for the next breath. Sink into this natural pause and enjoy it. It is a moment of tranquillity as still as a deep, calm pond. The exhalation disappears into it and then the stillness gives birth to the inhalation. As you observe this stillness you may find the pause lengthening naturally.
Now attune yourself to what happens at the top of the inhalation, before you feel the need to exhale. There is another pause, another precious moment. It is a full silence that you can relax into. As you let yourself sink into the moment it will expand.
These pauses give rise to a breath in four parts: a releasing exhalation, a still pause, the gift of a new inhalation, and a pause. Become absorbed in a meditative way in each part of your breath. No two breaths are the same. Make friends with your breath and get to know each other intimately.
Before you roll over to sit up, take some time to observe the effects this exercise has had on your mind. You have learned a new skill to quieten the mind. You have developed your self-awareness and practised being absorbed in the present moment.