We focus on eating healthily. Moving regularly. Sleeping well. Training our minds. But, do we also provide our body with the optimum fuel to keep us alert, vitalised, thinking clearly and relaxed? Fuel that helps us recover from stress, boosts our immune system and enriches every cell in our body?
What is that fuel? Oxygen.
How do we ensure that we get it in large quantities? Through breathing effectively.
We all know how to breathe. We can do it with no conscious thought at all. Yet how much of our unconscious breathing is taking in the oxygen we need to provide us with all the benefits we can obtain from breathing well?
In her book ‘Breathe’, Belisa Vranich describes our oxygen intake as “sustenance in a way that food can never be.” She states that “the best way to take care of yourself is to deal with the most important thing first: your breathing. Everything else is secondary.” In addition, renowned author and researcher Dr. Arthur Guyon found that all “chronic pain, suffering and disease are caused by a lack of oxygen at the cell level.” So, given these facts, how can we breathe in a way that optimises our health, nourishes our cells and enhances the functioning of our body on all levels?
Here are some ideas:
- Have correct posture. Belisa states that poor posture can affect our ability to breathe by up to 30%. We cannot breathe efficiently if we are collapsing in our chests, rounding our shoulders and looking down, perhaps hunched over a phone, tablet or computer. It’s important to stand or sit tall, chest up, chin down and imagine sitting and moving like the most powerful version of ourselves (as Amy Cuddy suggests in her book ‘Presence’). Mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn says, ‘sit with dignity’ and I think that encapsulates the ideal posture well.
- Breathe through your nose. Your body and brain respond differently depending on whether your breath comes in through your nose or mouth. Belisa’s findings show that mouth breathing can over-alkalise the blood leading to feelings of tension. In contrast, using the nose for the in and out breath can increase CO2 saturation in the blood and ensures that oxygen is released from the haemoglobin to our cells efficiently. This has a calming effect on us. And too nourishes our cells effectively which is key. Ideally, we should breathe though our nose always unless running hard. Even when we are asleep (aficionados sleep with tape over their mouths to ensure nose breathing all night!).
- Breathe into your abdomen. We are all prone to breathing in our chests, shoulders lifting with each breath. To breathe in a way that oxygenates us thoroughly, we must breathe down into our diaphragm and abdomen, keeping our shoulders still. The abdomen should expand on the in breath and then fully contract on the out breath releasing all the stale air. This release of the stale air is essential as we can hold up to 20% of our air intake in our lungs, taking up lung space and preventing us from breathing effectively. I like to imagine at the end of the out breath squeezing out the last of the breath and any remaining impurities.
- Breathe slow. Research shows that breathing at a rate of 4 – 6 breaths per minute is optimal for increasing our heart rate variability and quieting the stress response. At this rate, science shows that the electrical rhythms in our heart, lungs and brain can become synchronised. Approximately equalising the speed of the in and out breath helps with this synchronisation and enables us to breathe fully and deeply. Counting up to 5 on the in breath and 5 on the out breath gives a breathing rate of approximately 6 breaths per minute or counting to 7 on the in breath and 8 on the out leads to a rate of 4 breaths per minute which works well (imagine one second per count).
My experience is that when we bring a clear focus to our breath and seek to change it, it brings tension at first. Sometimes fear. It is important to gently push through any emotional barriers so you can move into fuller breathing patterns that can serve your long-term health. Even just five minutes a day using the ideas above can start to make all the difference to your feelings of centredness, groundedness and sense of connectedness with yourself.