The importance of breath for optimum health and wellness
Breathing – it sounds like something that we all should be pretty good at right? Most of us have a functioning nervous system that simply keeps the oxygen and carbon dioxide moving in and out of our lungs and our blood stream. It even happens when we’re asleep and certainly without us putting any conscious effort into it. There is however so much more to breathing than just trusting that our bodies are doing it correctly.
The reason there is so much importance placed on this thing that we all can do without even thinking about it, is that the optimal functioning of this all important system is greatly affected by the everyday stresses we experience in the office or our homes.
We can very quickly go from an ideal ‘rest and digest’ state where the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge – our bellies are soft, we are breathing into our diaphragm, and our gut function, as well as a myriad other organ systems, are happily working at an optimal rate – to fight or flight mode at the press of a button.
In fight or flight mode, as you might assume, we are preparing to flee something threatening or preparing for the fight of our lives! This is wonderful if we are in fact needing to flee something genuinely life threatening. Most of the time though, in our modern world, we are in fact safe, but the perceived threat comes in the form of a barrage of urgent emails, or an office confrontation.
Stressful work environments or poor use of our technology increases the likelihood of experiencing what has been termed * ‘screen apnea’, where due to stress, poor posture and a level of concentration, we hold our breath or breathe shallowly while working at our computers. This signals to the body that we are under some sort of threat and a cascade of hormones and biochemistry sets you up for a fight that never eventuates.
When this happens not only are we not breathing effectively and therefore not receiving ideal levels of oxygen but many of our necessary ongoing bodily functions are compromised. One great example is that in fight or flight mode our body will signal that we urgently need extra fuel. This will often result in cravings for sugary and salty foods to prepare our body for that run it believes is about to happen. When this doesn’t occur we all know where those extra calories end up!
The antidote to this sounds so simple (because it is) but does require practice due to the involuntary and ultimately life-saving nature of our fight or flight response.
We need to create a muscle memory of this deep gentle restorative diaphragmatic breathing.
Athletes, and professional dancers all have this ability to regulate and monitor their breathing; it’s essential to their craft, but we don’t have to be an athlete to master this art. Physical activity such as yoga or Qi Gong, where movement is linked with the breathing, is incredibly helpful but so too is sitting quietly once an hour at your desk, with your hand on your belly and taking five slow deep breaths with an emphasis on breathing down into your hand and extending the timing of the out breath.
This is something that we can do first thing in the morning, last thing at night, at intervals during the day and especially before eating to prepare digestion.
It’s the repetition and consistency of this action that creates the lasting results of which our whole body will reap the health benefits.
* “Just Breathe: building a case for screen apnea” Huffington Post Feb 8 2008
Breath is a key principle of wellness and key topic in all ASWA wellness programs.