Why breathe? It turns out we just can’t help ourselves, but we can help the self that breathes. Breathing is an essential physiological activity, controlled by both the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and conscious effort, though the ANS can override us if we try to hold our breath too long. Breathing seems like a simple activity, yet in reality it is very complex, being closely tied to physical and emotional health. Deep breathing in particular is good for us, as it delivers oxygen to tissues and expels more carbon dioxide than shallow breathing. Breathing is the pump for the body’s lymphatic system, ensuring our cells get adequate oxygen and food for their moment-to-moment to survival and removing the carbon dioxide and waste debris of cell metabolism.
Shallow breathing makes our lungs feel tense and constricted, and emotionally can create similar feelings. The lowest portion of the lungs, which is where many small blood vessels essential to oxygen transport reside, never gets a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious. Deep breathing, breathing to the bottom of your lungs, produces relaxation and calmness, dispersing nervous anxiety. Deep breathing, or belly breathing, pulls the diaphragm down (a muscle as important as the heart) and creates a full oxygen exchange. In short, it keeps the cells in our body alive and happy, which makes us feel good, and it deactivates the “fight-or-flight” response to stress.
Much attention and research has been focused lately on deep breathing as an important tool in the treatment toolbox for addiction, anxiety, depression, anger, and more. Although science sets itself apart from religious traditions, many of these breathing-focused practices, including Mindfulness-Based approaches, are rooted in Sōtō Zen Buddhism (some studies focus on Yoga), with its emphasis on meditation and breathing. Workshops on Mindfulness, run by university psychology departments, often have participants sitting on Zafu, Japanese sitting cushions used in Buddhism, meditating while facing a blank wall.
While Zen meditation may be a beneficial medium for deep, conscious breathing, it is not the only way. In fact, Zen has a large cultural component—an aesthetic appreciation of the extraordinary within the ordinary, a reverence for the simple. As much as I personally enjoy these cultural attributes, having lived in Japan for over a decade, you do not need to adopt a new culture or religious practice to in order to experience the benefits of deep breathing. It is extremely probable that breathing predates philosophy, and there are many ways to connect to deep breathing, including yoga, exercise, T’ai chi, self-hypnosis, being in nature, and the use of imagery. Importantly, breathing allows us to begin to problem-solve proactively. I work with clients to first connect with breath and then utilize the right tools to accept things that are out of their control and change what is in their control.
One of the best descriptions of the essential, non-dichotomous nature of deep breathing comes from the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Rumi describes breath as something outside religious or cultural systems, a connection between inner and outer, self and other. Rumi focuses simply on breath itself, without supporting a philosophical position. As Rumi knew, breath connects us to our natural state of equilibrium, a place beyond categories or judgments. And it is here that we are able to best deal with life’s stressors—we are more apt to be kind to self and others, to accept another point of view, and to have compassion (for others and ourselves).
In a subsequent blog post I will list imagery exercises which can serve as cues to access your innate, deep breathing faculty. For now, watch the Four Seasons Productions video of Rumi’s Only Breath, read by Coleman Barks, (link below) and notice what happens to your posture and breath:
Did you find your posture straightening naturally? Did you feel a connection to your deep-breathing self?
Most of us know that when we are calm and relaxed we make better decisions and can access more resources to deal with problems. Yet when we are stressed, emotions seem to take over and we cannot easily get to a calm space. What we can do is reinforce a connection to our natural, relaxed, deep breathing state when we are not in crisis. Like learning a fire drill, this practice will help, as when stress hits we will be better able to access our breathe response. Children are natural deep breathers, but as we age we tend to breathe more in our chest with shallow breaths (especially when we receive a text message or Facebook post), so we need a little help to switch into proper breathing, like using the above exercise.
The more we can connect to our natural state of deep breathing, the easier it is to use when life’s rouge waves hit. While you cannot breathe deeply with every single breath, checking in throughout your day can re-establish your natural, baseline state of attentive calmness. Deep, conscious breathing is one of the most beneficial things you can do in your day. And it doesn’t hurt to breathe.