This month we welcome a guest blog from Sian Leigh, creator of The Health Shed and yoga teacher on our Tuscany retreat. She gives us an insight into breathing and the powerful benefits…
I was having a heated discussion with husband earlier in the week about something so trivial I can’t recall what it was. It may have been over the fact I never screw the lids on jars properly, or perhaps it was the state of our Tupperware division (my bad), either way, the moment I took my focus to my breath it all became much like white noise. Although this served to calm me dramatically, I did notice my long slow deep breath through my nose and my lowering of my lids seemed to only make him more riled. Mental note, need to teach husband more about breath.
So, L’aspiration. For me, yin yoga has been my inroad into breathing properly. Before my diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I was having trouble getting the breath into my lungs. At that time I didn’t understand that I had become a chronic shallow breather and this was a massive contributing factor to a lot of my symptoms. I remember sitting in the waiting room at my Dr’s for the hundredth time thinking omg, I actually can’t breath. Am I having a panic attack? It was so odd for me, having never been a ‘panicy’ sort of person, to feel this sensation. I had always thrived on the buzz of life. I mean really? Breathing is something that our body just knows how to do right?
Onto the next health practitioner, I was offered the following list:
DO YOU SUFFER FROM ANY OF THE FOLLOWING?
- Chest tightness
- Compromised immune function
I was so devastated I had to answer yes to everything. But I couldn’t believe that something as simple as the breath could make all of those things disappear. Surely nothing that simple could fix my poor failing body. I now understand that shallow breathing can cause all of the above. I was so busy keeping up with life I frequently ‘forgot’ to breath. Through my day I was dealing with sick toddlers, a flailing business, an absent husband and my shallow breathing just became a habit, I was emptying too much carbon dioxide out of my blood and my stress levels were just rising and rising…and thus I was shallow breathing more….and on and on.
UNDERSTANDING THE BREATH
For you folk out there who need the science behind the etherial guff, read on. Yes, breathing is controlled by the respiratory centre of the brain and is an automatic body function. Relaxed, slow, steady, easy breathing allows for the exchange of gases our cells need to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.
The stress response can cause the breathing pattern to change, lets face it, we all face some sort of stress every day. I usually ask my clients to notice whether they breath into the chest or belly. They often use their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of the lungs. I then ask them if they have neck and shoulder pain and they look surprised as if I have read their mind. Frequently neck and shoulder pain can be dissipated through the introduction of basic breathing exercises.
When we breath properly we use the abdomen and diaphragm to suck and exhale air into and out of the lungs, soothing the autonomic nervous system. Belly breathing can reduce tension in the neck and shoulders, massage the heart, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and digest) through the phrenic nerve that runs down both sides of the diaphragm.
BREATHING DEEPLY TO REDUCE STRESS
Just as the sympathetic nervous system turns on the ‘fight or flight’ response, stress can be managed and reduced with proper breathing. Although breathing is an automatic body function, we can control it. With a little awareness, we can consciously shift into abdominal breathing, which has been shown to calm the autonomic nervous system and create a relaxation response. I make a conscious effort to take a few deep breaths before I sit down and eat at every meal (also when I’m on the loo and sitting at traffic lights too). On my inhalation I think ‘rest’, and on my exhalation I think ‘digest’.
Abdominal breathing has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones. Furthermore, it boosts the immune system and promotes a sense of calm. Breathing and meditation assist you to feel high on life. They balance you, clear your brain and really help in decision-making. The next time you have a difficult decision, ask yourself the question and then meditate or take 5 deep breaths to your belly. The answer will come from a gut feeling, taking you beyond the thinking mind. Yogis call this dhi or buddhi, which means ‘knowingness’.
If you, like me, find it hard to sit and focus on your breath, get there through movement. When you are practicing yoga, or doing anything to get the blood pumping, take your mind to your breath. It’s a good way to start.
The following breathing patterns can be used beyond traditional meditation and applied for immediate stress relief. Need more convincing? Read about a brilliant Harvard study which gives you living proof. Link is below the pic.
SOFT BELLY BREATHING
Practice in bed in the morning or evening with your knees bent. If sitting in a chair, sit upright so you’re able to support your own spine. I do this whenever I can, especially before I respond to a heated discussion about lids and Tupperware….
Place your hands on your belly, thumbs at the navel and finger tips below. Allow the belly to expand under your finger tips on the inhale and to contract on the exhale.
Envision an ocean wave: The belly expands on the inhale – the wave rises; the navel contracts on the exhale – the wave returns to the ocean.
If you aren’t getting any movement, press your finger tips gently into your belly so you know it’s contracting on the exhale. Release the press on the inhale.
As the expansion and contraction become more natural, focus on keeping a rhythmic breathing pattern, where the inhale and exhale are equal.
When your mind wanders, call it back in again, sometimes I find it easier to say ‘I am inhaling, I am exhaling’ or counting, ‘inhale 2,3,4, exhale 2,3,4’.
Take it slowly, be kind to yourself, and in the immortal words of Rachel Hunter ‘It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen’.