The Power of Breathing
The one thing we can’t live without
March 12, 2021 | Published by O2
The whole notion of breathing is fraught with paradox.
In the moment that a child is born there is an anticipated waiting for the first breath and as life bids one adieu there is a resigned acceptance of one’s last breath. In the in-between of life that paradox does not escape us; we have a playfulness about breathing that is juxtaposed with a seriousness that often chokes us to our last breath. We understand the lightheartedness of children playing in a swimming pool, seeing who can hold their breath the longest, and we are aghast when firefighters have to hold their breath to save someone from smoke inhalation in a burning house. We are spellbound at movies where scary scenes take our breath away and are gripped by a pandemic that has literally taken people’s breath away, even when supported by a ventilator. Finally, we are instructed in our most panicked moments of fright to relax and just breathe, while we witness the toll that our earth encounters through air pollution.
It is the complexity of this paradox that gives the right and necessity to reflect upon the simplicity of a single breath.
The Importance of Breath
The act of taking a breath is repeated by the human body approximately 20,000 times a day. Breathing is something that we do so often, that most of us are fortunate enough to forget we are even doing it at all – until of course, the cycle is interrupted. Ultimately, our breath is our fuel for life; and without oxygen passing in and out of our lungs, we will essentially die.
Our lungs and respiratory system are the parts of our body that allow us to repeat this process of breathing. To explain it simply, when you take a breath in, or you inhale, you are bringing oxygen into the body, and when you breathe out, also known as exhaling, you are sending carbon dioxide out of the body. This ongoing cycle of oxygen in and carbon dioxide out continues all day, every day, for as long as you are living. However, what many of us fail to realize is the complexity of this never ending cycle.
For every breath you take your diaphragm, which is located right below your lungs, must contract and flatten in order to allow the lungs enough room to expand. As the lungs expand, the inhaled air that has entered through the nose or mouth is passed through the trachea and bronchial tubes. The oxygen from the inhaled air then reaches the bloodstream, and while this is happening carbon dioxide is reversely moving from the bloodstream through to the lungs and is being exhaled. Every breath you take is therefore no more or less important than the last.
Breathing becomes a difficult process when the air cannot freely flow into and out of the lungs. There are a number of different things that can negatively affect the breathing process; some more controllable than others.
Most of us can relate to having a sinus cold at some point or other in our lives. Perhaps you experienced a stuffy nose or a dry cough that made it difficult for you to breathe normally, for a short period of time. Well, there are some people that deal with these difficulties on a regular basis. Those that suffer from things like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, or lung cancer are in a constant battle with their respiratory systems. These diseases can compromise the breathing process and ultimately lead to life threatening scenarios.
Other more minor but controllable things that can alter the rhythm of our breathing can include bad posture, being overweight, and/or being stressed. These examples are problematic because they do not allow for the ribcage to fully expand and provide the necessary space for the breath to flow, which in turn results in shorter, more shallow breathing. Putting focus on deep and purposeful breathing is extremely important in order for the human body to function most effectively.
Benefits of Deep Breathing
Although it might feel strange or maybe a little uncomfortable at first, practicing deep breathing can have many positive impacts on the body and on the mind. Deep breathing, also known as belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing, is meant to be intentional.
Deep breathing is an experience that allows for the full exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the body. It is something we can practice daily to help combat stress and anxiety, reduce pain and inflammation, lower blood pressure, and/or help with digestion. Deep breathing has the power to slow your heart rate down when you are stressed, it can release endorphins to the body to relieve pain, it can increase blood circulation to lower blood pressure levels, and can help your organs function effectively to aid with digestion.
Although deep breathing can yield numerous benefits for the human body, those benefits cannot truly be enjoyed unless one continually practices deep breathing. So,let’s highlight some tips to help get you started.
Practicing deep breathing is best done when in a quiet and comfortable space. When you first start practicing breathing intentionally, it is encouraged that you do so for at least 10-20 mins, at the same time, twice a day. Try not to overthink your breath, but rather just be fully present and connected with every inhale and exhale you take. It might feel good to be lying down, or maybe you prefer to be seated. Whatever position you do find yourself in, take one hand to your heart and the other to your belly, and when you do so be mindful of the way your body expands and contracts as your breath flows. Another common technique that many engage in is called 4-7-8 breathing. Try this by closing your eyes and mouth, take a deep breath and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4, then hold your breath for a count of 7, and finish by exhaling through your mouth for a count of 8. If this is too long at first, shorten the count but always ensure your exhale is twice as long as your inhale.
Deep breathing gets easier with consistency. Try to pay especially close attention to the way your body and mind feel after completing a sequence of deep breaths, and resort back to the practice when you find yourself in situations where your breath gets shallow.
Breathing is essential to our survival, and yet we continue to take it for granted. Our lungs and respiratory system are in desperate need of our protection; how we treat and take care of them is crucial for living a long and healthy life.