Breathing...We do it around 22,000 times a day. Our lungs contain around 24000 kilometers of airways and can contain 600 million alveoli (air sacs) and if stretched out, the surface area of our lungs would be the same size as a tennis court. We can increase the rate of life-giving oxygen that circulates through our blood by increasing our lung capacity (with exercise) and we can calm our nervous system by decreasing our rate of breathing when we are calm. Our breath can affect our mental health, blood pressure, heart rate, hormones, blood sugar levels and so much more. Yet there is no formal medical specialization that deals with teaching breathing in a way that yoga therapists and teachers do. Our lungs are amazing and precious and developing a variety of breathing skills can be beneficial for our health in many ways.
There is a pervasive thought that a ‘good breath’ is long and slow. Especially in the meditation and mindfulness sphere, where many of the breath practices tend to focus on extending the breath, especially the exhale. However, it is important to note that our bodies regulate our breathing patterns from moment to moment. Optimizing our breath for the activity our body is performing at the time. Therefore, if we were running up a steep hill for example, taking a long slow breath may becounter-productive for our body processes such as expelling CO2 and optimizing oxygen intake to support our muscle movement and exertion. A ‘good breath’ in this example may be a faster shallower breath.
It is easy for us to lose sight of the importance of our natural breath. Our breathing is part involuntary and part voluntary, meaning we can choose to control our breath to a certain degree or breathe without conscious effort. Observing the natural breath is a skill that should be practiced and may be more difficult than you anticipate! Surrendering control over the breath can be confounding, as bringing your awareness to the breath can naturally begin to change it. However, the ease with which our natural breath occurs and the natural variation in the breathing pattern and pauses between the breaths can give us great insight into our autonomic nervous system. Observing our natural breath for a few moments can give us some valuable clues to what is going on in the body and the mind and the breath can then act as our bridge to change those physical and psychological factors, if we choose.
The natural breath is the baseline for starting any work with breatj regulation. A great starting point is to set a duration for your exercise, 5 minutes for beginners. Get into any comfortable position for your body. Then bring your attention to your breath without trying to change or control it. Your mind may wander (as minds do, it's normal and natural) but gently return your attention each time to noticing the breath without interfering with it, or dwelling for too long on any observation (which is likely to influence the breath itself). After you time is finished take a moment to notice how you feel, what did you notice about your breath?
Our breath is a complex and wonderful process and observing our natural breath is a great way to appreciate all that our body does for us and quickly tap into a restful state for the mind. It's also the basis for many other breathing techniques that build on this ability. Give it a try and comment below with your thoughts.