At the start of each of my breathing and pranayama workshops and courses, I ask my students if during the last 12 months, they have encountered any type of anxiety, stress or panic attack which caused disruption in their day to day life. Every time, the replies are astonishing: two thirds of the people in the group tend to have experienced, with various levels of intensity and for all sorts of reasons, moments of panic, worry or anxiety. I know that harnessing our breath effectively can make a huge difference in managing our the difficult areas of our lives.
For example, we can change the stress patterns in our body and mind by doing some very easy, straightforward, gentle breathing exercises such as working on expanding the exhalation while breathing intentionally or by using the alternate nostril breathing technique.
It is important to build a collection of simple breathing techniques and meditation exercises which can be used at home, at work or beyond to support our health and vitality. I am not saying that it is an easy and instantaneous process but with time and practice we can cultivate and develop a level of awareness, acceptance, patience and kindness with ourselves and our bodies via our breath.
So, what is the physical and psychological role of the breath? What are the benefits of good breathing?
1. Keeps us alive: Here are the 2 respirations occurring in our bodies which keep us alert and alive:
- External respiration: Occurring at the level of the lungs, the airs enters the body from the outside through the lungs and leave it again at a rate of about 12 to 15 times per minute. This phenomenon is called external respiration or simply breathing.
- Internal respiration: At the tissue and cellular level, this respiration feeds the cells in the tissues with oxygen. The oxygen is carried to the cells by the blood. It arrives at the capillaries which exchange it into carbon dioxide. The deoxygenated blood is then transported through the veins until it reaches the heart, where it is once again pumped out to the lungs to receive new oxygen. For all this to happen correctly we need to have a healthy respiratory machine and need to keep the parts of the machine in good condition.
2. Keeps our muscles relaxed: Each breath has a distinctive role. One of the roles of our exhalation is to relax and calm. To some degree we can reduce tension, tightness, discomfort and pain by learning how to use our exhalations efficiently.
3. Your blood pressure lowers and slows down the heart rate. As your muscles let go of tension, your blood vessels dilate, and your blood pressure can return to a normal level.
4. Detoxification improves. Good breathing habits help the lymphatic system function properly, which encourages the release of harmful toxins. This cleanses the body and allows it to direct its energy to more productive functions.
5. Helps to keep all our systems healthy Respiratory, circulatory, nervous, digestive, urinary, lymphatic. All these depend on our breath!
6. Endorphins are released which help with pain relief. Deep breathing triggers the release of endorphins, which improves feelings of well-being and provides pain relief.
7. Balances our nervous systems: We can directly influence the autonomic nervous system with its three branches: sympathetic nervous system (conscious bodily functions), parasympathetic nervous system (unconscious bodily functions) and enteric nervous system (called the second brain: gastrointestinal tract functions).
8. Reduces anxiety, stress and panic. Some situations may cause heart palpitations, lightheadedness, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, and, at times, they may cause you to pass out. Consequently, the mind responds to the attack by causing further symptoms of anxiety and panic. We can control the effects with simple breathing techniques which rebalance your focus on yourself and away from the source of stress and, through the exercises, regulate your heart, your breathing and your mind.
9. Helps on sleep disorders and insomnia. Breathing exercises can help you to sleep. Calm, deep breathing helps to override the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and switch on the parasympathetic system (ability to relax) which can then take control of our body and mind. The result is a slower heart rate, quieter breathing and a greater sense of calm.
10. Develop and help to learn meditation. Develop body awareness, focus and concentration. With guided breathing meditations, focusing on the breath forces your mind to concentrate on one point only and, therefore, starts the process of deep concentration leading to meditation.
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