Before you read any further, pause and notice your breath. Is it full and energizing, or shallow and quick? Do you breathe with your belly or just your ribcage? Now, consciously deepen your breath, draw it in slowly, visualize it filling your torso, and release it with the same thoughtfulness, noting any sensations. Now, don't you feel better?
"Physiologically, deep breathing increases lung capacity, strengthens the respiratory and circulatory systems, boosts the immune system by moving lymph throughout the body, and calms the agitated mind" says Stephanie Keach, RYT and author of The Yoga Handbook: An Inspirational Handbook for Teaching and Home Practice. Indeed, respiration holds a unique place in our mind/body. It may be the only bodily function that is both automatic and within our control. That is, we can consciously control and manipulate our breath, but when our attention wanes, the autonomic process kicks in and the body breathes itself. Indeed, because the rate of respiration affects and is affected by our heart rate and nervous system, deep breathing can be used to increase physical endurance, work through difficult emotions, calm an agitated nervous system or simply promote greater relaxation.
Unfortunately, most of us wait until we're in crisis to take a deep breath. Children breathe freely in and out of their little round bellies. As adults, we've long lost the ability to naturally breathe this way. Because of restrictive clothing, anxiety, and self- or body-consciousness, many of us breathe shallowly, just into the uppermost half or even third of our lungs. In addition, we often unconsciously hold our breath, thereby starving our tissues of energizing oxygen. As a result, we feel just a little more anxious all the time and rob our cells of the mini-detox that takes place with every full breath.
Thankfully, our habitual breathing patterns can be improved. Yogi Donna Farhi writes in The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality through Essential Breath Work, "Perhaps the most universal experience of my own breath work students is their new-found ability to handle tough situations with an ease that previously seemed illusive . . . As their minds become clearer and their emotions become more balanced through calm and regular breathing, they are creating a life that is conducive to health, well-being, and a sense of inner peace" For novices to breath work, Keach suggests an easy breathing exercise that can be integrated throughout the day: "Just allow your breath to be soft, easy, long and natural, and completely relaxed. This directly triggers the, relaxation response' of the parasympathetic nervous system" Try this exercise for fifteen minutes. If you don't have an extra fifteen minutes a day to devote to conscious breathing, try using routine activities like standing in line, washing your hands or waiting at a stoplight to act as cues to deepen your breath. A host of benefits await you!