We’ve all heard it before.
And yet, with our busy, stressed-out everyday lives — and our addiction to technology, our computers and cell phones — it has become so common for us to lose our connection to our breath.
We get lost in our minds, and we forget that we are breathing. We’re still breathing during these long lapses of time where we forget, don’t get me wrong — otherwise, we would die very quickly — but our breath becomes very tense and shallow, which triggers our sympathetic nervous system. Yuck.
Deep, slow, conscious breathing, on the other hand, activates our parasympathetic nervous system. Muy Bueno.
Awareness of Your Breath = A Sound Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the control system that functions largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions.
Here are some facts about the sympathetic nervous system:
It associates with “fight or flight”
It was useful for survival (when you were a caveman or cavewoman you could more effectively run from a sabertooth tiger)
It destroys muscles and increases storage of fat
It governs the release of the two key stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline
It contributes to increased heart rate, heightened blood pressure, sweating, pupil dilation, and blood flow to the limbs
Just think everyday stress like traffic and deadlines
And the parasympathetic:
It associates with “rest and digest”
It is active during sleep and promotes healing
It helps build muscle
It releases hormones DHEA, Melatonin, Estrogen, and Testosterone
It facilitates sexual arousal
Think meditation and deep sleep
So when we lose awareness of our breath (except during deep sleep), our breath becomes irregular, tense, and shallow, and our sympathetic system switches on.
But when we are aware of our breath, our breath evens and deepens, and we experience all of the great parasympathetic benefits.
Fortunately, we have some tools of breath awareness at our disposal.
Develop Breath Awareness with 3 Types of Breathing
In yoga, the breathing techniques are called ‘pranayama,’ which is a Sanskrit word. Surely you’ve heard it if you’ve been to any yoga studio anywhere around the world.
In the sanskrit, the ancient Hindu language, the word ‘prana’ refers to breath. Prana means “life force” or “life energy.”
Life begins when we take our first breath, and life ends when we take our last breath. For this reason, it has been said that many a mountain yogi counts his or her life not in years but in the number of breaths they take.
We can think of breath like this: breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. In order to function most efficiently, we want to create a stronger connection between the body and the mind. We can think of breath as a tool that helps us maintain that balance, that equilibrium of body and mind.
There are three categories of breathing that we can implement to help maintain that equilibrium — quiet breathing, deep breathing, and fast breathing.
Everyone is familiar with the first category of breathing — after all, it’s natural — but many of us are not familiar with the other two, which involve more deliberate efforts.
Quiet breathing is simple.
We simply place our attention on our breath, right at the space between our two nostrils, and notice what it does.
We allow everything to be, allow the breath to come fast or slow, deep or shallow, but notice also how the breath develops a slower and deeper rhythm as we maintain our awareness of it.
Breath in, inspiration. Breath out, expiration. Breath in fresh oxygen, breath out stale carbon dioxide.
It’s that simple.
2. Deep Breathing
Deep breathing is a controlled style of breathing. Deep breathing, or deep belly breathing, is good for the lungs and respiratory system.
This type of pranayama is often called ujjayi breathing. The roots of the word ujjayi relate to the terms superiority and rank, blowing and expanding, and conquest, victory, triumph, or success.
When we fully expand our bellies and lungs with air, we can puff our chests out like a warrior.
We can imagine the process for this type of breathing as if our body is a bellows. When we breathe air in, we expand the diaphragm, sucking air into our belly, as if we are expanding a bellows.
We breathe air in through our nose as opposed to the mouth, but allow the sucking and descending of air to originate from the back of your throat. We observe the sensation of the sucking along the roof of the palate and back of our throat, and observe the noise that it makes, the sound of the mechanical breath of Darth Vader.
When we blow air out, we contract the diaphragm, sqeezing air out of our belly, as if we are contracting a bellows. And when we do so, we keep our mouth closed, but observe the rising and passing of air along the back of our throat and the roof of the palate, and observe the same Darth Vader noise.
This kind of breathing is very calming for the nervous system.
3. Fast Breathing
Fast breathing is a very forceful style of breathing, but it will help sharpen our attention.
There are different styles of fast breathing — bhastrika and kapalabhati, for example — and I am not going to go into all the nuances of those here. However, the basic idea is this:
We want to generate short explosive exhales through the nose or mouth, depending on the technique, alternating with passive inhales.
When engaging in this style of breathing, we generate our exhales through powerful contractions of the lower belly. So, squeeze the belly whilst simultaneously blowing out air from either your mouth or nostrils.
This kind of breathing has various benefits, including the strengthening of the muscles of our abdomen, the improvement of blood circulation in our body, and the calming and uplifting of the mind. This cleansing breath can help us not only release stress and toxins from the body and mind, but it can also help release negative emotions, shake off sluggishness, and energize.