The festive season can be a stressful time of year for many people - with family obligations (despite how much we may love them), feelings of loneliness, financial worries, etc.
The average resting respiratory rate is 16 breaths per minute. That means a person who reaches 80 years of age would have taken 672,768,000 breaths in their lifetime. This is not including increased respiratory rates during exercise or those moments when someone takes your breath away. Life suddenly seems short measured in breaths.
The Breath of Life
Many religious systems uphold a strong belief in the breath, not just on a physical level but for its spiritual and energetic properties - being the life force within us and the energy that we can use to enrich others. The bible contains many descriptions of the life giving potential of the breath - such as, "God breathed the breath of life into man's nostrils and man became a living soul". The ancient Hebrew word "ruah", appearing frequently in the Old Testament means "spirit", "breath" and "wind" - an imperceptible force, yet vital.
For the Akan people of West Africa, the life force "ōkra" and breath "Honhom" are closely connected, with the ōkra causing the breathing. When a person dies, it is said "His breath is gone" (ne honhom kō) or "His soul has withdrawn from his body" (ne 'kra afi ne ho).
From a physiological perspective the process of breathing involves the movement of oxygen into, and carbon dioxide out of the lungs, maintained by the respiratory muscles such as the diaphragm. The primary aim of respiration is to provide sufficient amounts of oxygen to the tissues. All in all, it is a fairly easy bodily function, in that it does not require a great deal of conscious effort to inhale and exhale. We don't often pay attention to our breathing unless we are "out of breath" through various forms of exertion or when imbalances emerge that throw these delicate mechanisms into disarray. Disturbances to this finely tuned system can result in and/or be caused by diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (e.g. asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis), bad posture and obesity.
Take a Breath
Out of the 23,040 breaths that we take each day, how many of those breaths are in fact full breaths? A complete breathing cycle (inhalation and exhalation) sees the diaphragm rise and expand as we inhale and the lungs fill with oxygen, and fall as we expel carbon dioxide. As mentioned, there are diseases that can disrupt our ability to breathe properly but there are also things happening every day that affect our ability to take a breath.
Our natural "fight or flight" physiological response to a perceived threat, causes the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and noradrenaline, causing increased heart rate, increased muscles tension, pupil dilation and, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. This survival technique is ideal if you are being chased by a lion but not so useful over a sustained long-term period.
Daily stressors can cause us to remain in a constant state of "fight or flight" with its associated shallow breathing. Unfortunately, city life can often leave us susceptible to numerous stressors and we may not be aware of how our breathing and our health are affected. Shallow breathing can mean that we are not exercising our lungs efficiently, the brain and the tissues of the body are not able to receive an adequate amount of oxygen and we are not able to expel enough carbon dioxide. We may feel fatigued or experience achy muscles as we try to deal with the reduced oxygen to the bloodstream and circulatory system.
Bringing our focus and awareness to our breathing can have a significant impact on our general health and wellbeing and help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Although regular exercise can have a positive effect on our health, it may not change our ability to breathe properly. Our lungs could in fact do with their own workout.
In yogic traditions, the study of the breath is called pranayama (from the Sanskrit "prana" meaning life force and yama or "ayama" meaning extension of). In the 15th century yoga manual Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the focus is not on the asanas (postures), but the pranayama practices. When we consider how important respiration can be on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, it is easy to see why such emphasis is placed on our ability to develop our breathing.
In case the teachings of the ancient religious systems are not to be believed, studies in the field of neurobiology have shown that meditation (the practice of focusing the breath), can alter MRI brain scans, showing increased brain function, initiation of the relaxation response pathway and an increase in dopamine release (a happy hormone).
There are numerous breathing techniques that can be experimented with and it is quite easy to get overwhelmed with doing the exercises "correctly". However, as with any exercise, it takes practice and progress in stages. The most important thing is that the exercises bring our focus inwards.
It should also be remembered that, as with many exercises, you should consult a health care professional or yoga teacher if you are experiencing any health problems, are pregnant or not used to regular physical exercise or breathing exercises.
A simple exercise is to sit on a sturdy chair with your back straight but not tense. Place your feet flat on the floor and rest your hands on your thighs. Notice how you are breathing without trying to change your breathing pattern. Are you holding your breath? Do your shoulders or your chest feel tight? Take a slow deep inhalation and on your exhalation release a deep audible sigh. Repeat this twice more.
Bring your lips to close without tensing them and begin to breathe slowly through your nose.
As you inhale slowly, feel your abdomen expand and imagine the breath travelling to the back of your heart and out the top of your head. As you exhale feel your abdomen relax completely and imagine the breath travelling out through your heels. Try to make your inhale and exhale last for the same amount of time (possibly five seconds each way).
As you get deeper into the exercise soften the focus of your eyes or close them if you find this comfortable.
Strengthens the diaphragm
Brings focus inwards
An alternative method is lie on the floor with one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Repeat the same exercise and feel as your abdomen rises and falls with each breath.
It is quite easy to get distracted between the inhale and exhale and for the mind to run off in all directions. A technique to combat this is to count the breaths to yourself (as mentioned above) or literally tell yourself to inhale and exhale. This unconscious process then becomes a very conscious meditative movement.
Andy Capnigro (2010) The Miracle of the Breath: Mastering Fear, Healing Illness, and Experiencing the Divine.
Kwame Gyekye (1995) An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme
Yogi Ramacharaka (1905) Science of Breath: A Complete Manual of the Oriental Breathing Philosophy of Physical, Mental, Psychic and Spiritual Development
JT Thayer (2010) The Science of Breath, Hatha Yoga and Psychic Healing