Are You Breathing Yet?

Recently, I was talking with a friend who, just like many of us, lives a very busy life.  As I was listening to her talk about everything that she does, I asked her, “When do you breathe?”  She responded laughing, “I stopped.”

photo credit: Open Your Eyes Now, Deviant Art

Though my friend was laughing as she said this, the truth is that often times when we get caught up in the busy mill of our routine, we do, in fact, cut our breath short.  Many of us have forgotten how to breathe or perhaps do not even know how.  And the breath is a very powerful tool for achieving balanced health.  Really, if we just consider the obvious- it is essential for life.

While improper breathing and higher breathing rates, often brought about by stress of some kind, are correlated with a great deal of chronic illnesses, proper breathing can help to prevent and counter them, providing a route for healing in very many conditions.  One specific example is depression.

Often, in the case of depression, the improper functioning of neurons in releasing serotonin, commonly known as the “happiness chemical”, is targeted with anti-depressant medications.  However, though anti-depressant medications may be indicated in severe depression, learning how to breathe deeply can help an individual to discard an old pattern of inhibiting breath as a way to control emotions and instead learn how to use the breath to inhabit and accept emotions as they arise.  Breathing fully helps to provide optimal oxygenation of the brain and regulate heart rate, adrenaline levels, muscle tension, and blood flow- all of which are involved in the stress “fight or flight” response and also are involved in the physiological effects of a state of depression.   Furthermore, slow and controlled breathing increases serotonin levels.  These physiological effects, combined with increased awareness and acceptance, create a powerful tool for addressing the root cause and trigger of an individual’s depression.

In both Ayurveda and Yoga, the breath has a particular significance regarding mental-emotional health and is used to create balance, stability, and strength, with specific practices such as pranayam, or balanced breathing.  With both, the breath is regarded as a form of “prana” or “life force.”  According to Ayurved, prana is the “primary air” and it is interesting to the note that it is simultaneously considered as the nervous force as well as governing inhalation.  The channel of the body involving the movement of prana is one of the first considered when tracking the cause of imbalance.   This imbalance of prana is at the root cause of most illnesses as it goes on to further imbalance all other aspects of the body.

photo credit: Sharon Ebert

Practicing deep breathing techniques can help to calm the mind and create coherence, or harmony, in the body, one of the defining factors of health from both an Ayurvedic and a biophysics perspective.  Specific techniques such as slowing and extending both inhalation and exhalation to a rate of about six full, complete breaths per minute and filling not only the chest cavity but the abdominal cavity, creates a state of coherence and synchronization between the heart and the breath.  In this state the heart then sends messages to the brain which result in the release of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, all involved with creating a “feel good” feeling.  The next time you feel stressed or you find your mind racing, stop to take a few deep belly breaths, counting to five on both the inhale and the exhale.  Notice how your body and your mind feel afterwards.  Maybe you are learning how to breathe.

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