The benefits of good breathing
Breathing is such a natural and essential part of life, but it’s not something we usually notice much in daily life.
This is because your breathing is controlled by the unconscious you. By this we don’t mean what happens when you are asleep, but rather all of the vital functions that keep us alive without us consciously having to remember to do them. As well as breathing, these include our heart beating, digestion and so on.
The unconscious you is all powerful, even if you are normally not aware of it. Our unconscious processes and functions outnumber our conscious thoughts 1 million to one and happen before you have even begun to think about getting started.
The unconscious you works mainly through two parts of your nervous system – known as fight or flight, and rest and digest. These are ancient response systems which work in opposition to each other to maintain balance in the mind and body.
Between them, these systems control our vital body functions, including breathing, adjusting them in response to external or internal stimulae. As their names suggest, fight or flight gears the body up for action with faster breathing to pump oxygen round the body, and rest and digest slows things back down.
These systems developed in prehistoric times to protect us from harm and keep our bodies functioning efficiently and have remained largely unchanged. However they respond just as strongly to perceived situations as to real danger. In the modern world this means that your body will respond to your thoughts about your current stressful situation in exactly the same way as it would to being physically attacked. If your stressful situation is not resolved, for example it is out of your control, then your body will remain in a predominantly fight or flight mode.
Over time this stress response changes how you breathe. Relaxed breathing uses your diaphragm and the whole of your lungs, whereas stressed breathing mainly happens in the top of your lungs and recruits ‘accessory’ muscles in your chest and neck which are not normally used for breathing.
Stressed breathing is less efficient and contributes to other stress responses such as tense muscles and increased heart rate. It can also impair function of the vagus nerve which reduces our ability to rest and digest – you can read more about the vagus nerve HERE
Relax your body with fascial breathing
One way to reduce your stress levels and to develop a more relaxed body state is through conscious breathing exercises such as fascial breathing.
To start, first make sure that you are in a relaxed, quiet space and make yourself comfortable, whether seated or lying down. Tune in to your breath and notice where and how you are breathing. Are you breathing through your nose, your mouth, or both? Is your ribcage moving as you breathe, or does your breath feel tight and shallow?
When you first start to practice fascial breathing, it is a good idea to place the palms of your hands on your lower ribs. This way you can notice how your ribcage moves when you breathe. If your diaphragm is engaged, then your ribs will move out and slightly up towards your head as you breathe in, and then in and slightly down towards your feet as you breathe out. It is a good idea to practice this a few times before you start so you get the feeling in your hands and your body.
Then start to breathe in a pattern of 7/11 breathing – breathe in for a count of 7 and then out for a count of 11, really emptying your lungs. When you finish breathing out, just allow yourself to be still for a moment before breathing in again. This still point encourages further deep relaxation in the body. if you find that you are struggling toward the end of either the in-breath or the out-breath, or if you feel you have to force the end of your out-breath, then simply shorten the count for both until you feel comfortable. Whatever count is good for you, always make the out-breath longer than the in-breath as this promotes relaxation in your body.
Practising fascial breathing even for just a few minutes a day at first will help to improve the health of your vagus nerve and in turn stimulate your rest and digest system.