Think Breath

If breathing is so natural, why do we rarely get it right?

*Photograph sourced from Unsplash

I’m a yoga instructor, and in the summer of 2015 I decided to take on the monstrous task of teaching my mother some pranayama. As she huffed and puffed through the 30-minute class, I kept glancing over to see how she was doing. Based on her expression, she seemed relaxed, confused, and dazed–all at once. “I never knew I had been breathing incorrectly all my life,” she told me afterwards, amazed. The breath, or prana, as it’s called in yoga literature, is the only visceral function that we have the ability to control, even though most of us choose to submit to it involuntarily. And believe it or not, there actually is a “correct” way to breathe.

“I never knew I had been breathing incorrectly all my life,” she told me afterwards, amazed.

One of the best examples of proper breathing is a sleeping baby. When you take a closer look, you’ll see that most of the motion occurs in the baby’s abdomen and diaphragm, with almost no upper chest movement. That’s the right way to do it.

As we grow older, most of us pick up some bad habits, including shallow breathing with incorrect diaphragm movement. I regularly see my yoga students struggling to un-learn this process. In fact, that kind of shallow respiration has become so commonplace that IT companies are actually building apps to remind people to breathe deeper.

Where does the tendency toward shallow breathing originate, anyway? Whenever we find ourselves in tricky situations which the mind perceives as threatening, our body instinctually jumps into “fight or flight” mode. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing shorter, shallower breaths. Oddly enough, this incorrect breathing perpetuates the sympathetic nervous system’s high alert – meaning slower digestion and increased blood pressure, among other effects.

But when we slow down and breathe diaphragmatically, we take deeper inhalations and exhale completely. This allows the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, encouraging balance in the body by regulating all other visceral functions, such as digestion and the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. By simply taking deeper breaths, we can restore balance in our entire body.

Many of us think that breathing is all about taking in oxygen, but we actually need both oxygen and carbon dioxide in correct proportions to achieve a calm state of mind. The steady flow of deep breaths in and out provides exactly the balance we need.

As you might have realised by now, the benefits of proper breathing go far beyond the physical. In 2009, The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a study entitled “Yoga Breathing, Meditation, and Longevity.” According to the study, yoga breathing – also known as diaphragmatic breathing – can help reduce stress and other psychological conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Over the course of your life you’ve probably noticed how slowing the breath can lead to feelings of tranquility. On days when you can’t make time for meditation or a yoga class, simply taking longer breaths might provide just the dose of Zen you need.

So, the next time you find yourself in a sticky situation, notice your breath – and I mean really slow down and observe it – and ask yourself, “Am I breathing correctly?”

If not, then it’s high time you take a “breather”!