Have you ever asked yourself why you breathe? You may think this question has a pretty obvious answer: we need to breathe to survive. But is there more to breathing than simply bringing oxygen into your body?
You breathe somewhere between 17 and 29 thousand times per day, or 6 to 10 million breaths per year. If you did anything else that often, you’d probably have a pretty good idea how and why you did it. So it always surprises me how little understanding there is about this essential act of living that we do every moment of every day.
In fact, most of us are so unaware of our breathing that we don’t notice how, either over time or even in a single moment, we can develop dysfunctional breathing habits that are slowly destroying our health and happiness, manifesting in physical and mental dysfunctions from fatigue, headaches, digestive issues and sleep disorders to chronic stress and anxiety.
It is estimated that roughly 60 percent of all emergency ambulance calls in larger American cities involve breath-related disorders. To quote Donna Farhi, a world-renowned yoga instructor: “A casual glance at any city street will reveal the extent to which tight belts, tight bodies and tight schedules are literally taking our breath away.”
Starting To Use The Breath On Purpose
But there is good news. Watch how a toddler breathes, and notice the open and flowing nature of their breath. With some understanding and practice, you can easily retrain your own breathing mechanics back to their original and optimal state.
And it doesn’t stop there. Since the way that we breathe affects every single system and function in the body, you can start to use the breath on purpose to create changes in your physiology and how you think and feel. Think of the breath as your body’s very own in-built Swiss Army knife. Here, you have a tool that can help you in so many situations, and improve your physical and mental health and performance and emotional wellbeing.
You might be a sleep-deprived parent, a stressed business executive, an elite athlete or anyone in between. By simply learning how to use your breath as a tool, the way nature intended you to, you will experience dramatic changes in your life. Think about it – if this promise is as simple as taking a few breaths in a certain way, what are you waiting for?
Before we can change anything or go any further, the first and most important step of this journey is simply to draw your attention to your breath without changing its behaviour. Many people will never have thought to pay attention to their breath for any extended period of time; yet your breath holds so much information on your internal state of being.
You are the observer, the watcher and the witness of nature in action. Your breath is the anchor to the here and now; it’s never in the past, never in the future.
It just so happens that this practice by itself is very relaxing, even if a little challenging at first. It can be very hard to observe your breath and not take control of it, particularly for people who struggle to let go of control in one or many aspects of their life.
The way we breathe is a reflection of how we approach life. So, for someone who likes to be in control all the time, letting the breath happen without taking charge of it may be a challenge. But, with practice, it will become easier and you’ll be able to allow your breath to come and go reflexively without you getting in the way.
An Exercise: Practicing Breath Awareness
- Sit comfortably.
- Close your mouth and allow the breath to come and go through the nose.
- Start by noticing the physical sensations of breathing.
- Track the flow of air through your nose into your lungs – what does it feel like?
- Which muscles move as you breathe?
- Next, start to pay attention to the natural reflexes of your breathing.
- When does your body want to inhale and for how long?
- Does your body want to pause at the top of the inhale?
- When does your body want to start to exhale and for how long?
- Does your body want to pause at the bottom of the exhale?
- Continue to observe the breath in its reflexive form. There’s no right or wrong, nothing to achieve, nothing to get right. Simply observe with curiosity. Let the breath breathe you!
- For its relaxing effect, repeat for at least 3–5 minutes. This practice is fantastic for meditation, so you can keep going for as long as you want.
It’s completely normal for your mind to wander off or become distracted during this practice, no problem. Once you realize that you’ve gone off tangent, simply bring your awareness and focus back to the next breath.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Richie’s short course on better breathing. The course encompasses five emails introducing you to the basics of breathwork, how it affects your mind and body and some handy breathing exercises for you to take away. To find out more or sign up click here.
Richie’s new book ‘Exhale: How to Use Breathwork to Find Calm, Supercharge Your Health and Perform at Your Best’ is out on 10th September.