Sunday, 25 October 2020

Breathing Part 1: Why?

Breathing.  You'd think it was simple.  Just breathe. As essential as it is to human life, breathing properly is not as simple as it sounds.

A few days ago I posted something on my IG feed about nasal breathing and the benefits I've seen from using it to help my stress and general health this summer.  Within minutes I started receiving private messages from people saying that what I had posted was very helpful and asking for more information.  I am by no means an expert and I barely consider myself at an intermediate skill level with breathwork.  However, I can certainly provide you some resources to find the information you need and tips on what has helped me in my journey.

Let's start at the beginning.  In my training as a physiotherapist (almost 25 years ago) we were taught all the facts of cardiopulmonary anatomy and function.  Once I started practicing, I found myself wrapping towels around a patient's lower trunk and asking them to breathe in and create pressure around the towel. I got confused stares. I tried in vain to teach people to breathe "through their bellies" and expand as they inhaled, which was a foreign concept and counterintuitive to almost everyone.  Honestly, even though I knew the diaphragm is an integral part of the "core," I got so frustrated I almost completely abandoned teaching the mechanics of breathing early on in my career.  Nobody cared, nobody got it.  If you were my patient between between 2003 and 2007 I'm sorry I failed you.

Then in 2007 I had my first child. Nicholas was as feisty as his mother. The more he cried, the more ramped up I'd get and then more he'd cry. We fed off each other.  If I was stressed, he'd cry.  If I was calm, he was calm.  I quickly found that the only way I could settle him to sleep was to first calm myself  though breathing.  I would start taking deep slow breaths with him glued to my chest.  Before long his breathing would match mine and he would fall into a deep sleep.  Through the terrible twos, the trying threes, and the f'ing fours we'd sit together and take deep breaths in and out to break out of hysterical moments.  He is now 13 and we still do this.  It's our routine.  It has only just now occurred to me that this was the start of my awareness of how powerful the breath is in changing our mental state. I had discovered it quite by accident, but now have a knowing that I can't deny.

There are many ways to look at breathing and the effects of the breath...mechanical, anatomical, biochemical, neurophysiological, metaphysical, spiritual.  Brian MacKenzie says that the breath is the remote control for the mind, but I would also say that the mind is remote control for the breath. They inform each other.  If there is one thing that both responds to and provides feedback from ALL the systems in the human body, it's the breath, and if there was ever a time when everyone should be motivated to have really efficient lungs and immune system, it should be the midst of a global pandemic involving a virus that attacks the lungs.

Why should we care about how we breathe?  Other than the fact that if we don't breathe regularly WE DIE, there are other qualitative reasons to consider how we breathe.  It's all about the autonomic nervous system.  Sympathetic and parasympathetic balance.  The Chinese call it ying and yang.  We call it something more "scientific." We are always in a state of either sympathetic dominance or parasympathetic dominance.  Being perfectly balanced is rare. There are times when both are necessary and it is appropriate to be in either one state or the other.  If you are having to defend your life, run from an attacker, defend your thesis, or athletically perform at a high level, it might be beneficial for you to be in a sympathetically dominant state.  However, we were never meant to be in that state all the time.  There are times when you need to rest and digest, to recover, to not be on defense. In today's world we increasingly find ourselves stuck in flight or fight mode without a way to shut it down.  Enter insomnia, anxiety, irritability, allergies, asthma, irritable bowel...and when our systems can't sustain that anymore?  We crash. Enter depression, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, poor athletic performance, loss of concentration, chronic fatigue, and the list goes on.

Where does breathing come in?  Listen up.

1) We can discover what state we are in simply by observing our ability to breathe in that moment.

2) We can change our autonomic nervous system state through breathing (as I discovered with my infant son).

It's really quite phenomenal.  We can both gain immediate feedback as to what state our nervous system is in AND change it almost immediately, simply through the breath.  Breathing is literally at the epicenter of it all.

Don't believe me?  Try one of these two exercises for several days and see what you discover:

1) Box Breathing

  • Cadence: 1:1:1:1
  • Example: Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds.  Repeat x 10. Chose a time you can complete for 10 reps.
  • Whatever time you are able to complete, repeat your boxes daily.  Observe how your ability to complete your boxes is influenced by:
    • Amount of sleep you had the night before
    • Level of stress and current mental state
    • Level of fatigue from training
    • Amount of alcohol consumption
    • Amount of water consumption
    • What you eat
    • Medications you take

2) Nasal Breathing While Running

  • Keep your mouth closed while running at a slow steady state (zone 1-2).
  • Run at a pace you can sustain with your mouth CLOSED.
  • Observe how your ability to keep your mouth closed is influenced by:
    • Amount of sleep you had the night before
    • Level stress and current mental state
    • Level of fatigue from training
    • Amount of alcohol consumption
    • Amount of water consumption
    • Environmental temperature
    • What you eat
    • Medications you take

Do this daily for a week and observe how challenging or easy certain days are.  You will find some days are super easy and some days are impossible.  Why?

I plan to write at least 2 more parts to this series, exploring specific breathing techniques anyone can do to improve their awareness of and control over their autonomic nervous system, as well as provide links to many resources I've found helpful.

However, you have to experience how powerfully your breath can inform you of your physical,  physiological and mental and spiritual state before you can become convinced as to WHY you should be trying to take control over this area of your health in the first place.

So go do one of these two breathing exercises and see what you discover!