When I began practicing yoga, I didn’t quite get what the fuss over breath was. I started at my local rec center with a yoga teacher who, in a wispy voice, would proclaim “and breeeeeathe!” as we floated down to forward fold. She may have been a bit dramatic, but as I grew in my practice of yoga as well as in my career as a physical therapist, I began to see what a big impact breathing has on illness and recovery.
Breathing is at our core. We clearly can’t live without it, but the quality is what can transform us. How, you say? It affects our mind, body and spirit. Let me tell you how!
Let’s start with mind. The autonomic nervous system controls everything that we don’t think about: organ function, hormones, heart rate, smooth muscle, and breathing when we’re not paying attention. The brain or mind senses how the body is doing based on how we voluntarily breathe. Is it shallow, are we holding our breath, is it fast, is it deep, is it relaxed and diaphragmatic? You get the idea. This observation communicates with the autonomic nervous system to either encourage a “fight or flight mode” or calm, relaxed state so we can accommodate to our surroundings. We have control of how we voluntarily breathe which means we could potentially control a big piece of our health!
Our breathing pattern has a strong influence on the muscles in our body. Dysfunctional breathing often causes or contributes to pain. Sometimes people use their diaphragm to brace and hold themselves up instead of their abdominal muscles. Very often in my practice I see patients who breathe using their secondary breathing muscles, otherwise known as neck muscles. This leads to neck stiffness, pain and headaches, even shoulder dysfunction. Many people, especially women, hold their tummies in instead of allowing expansion with breathing. This limits core and pelvic floor flexibility as well as strength.
Finally, there’s spirit. We need space in which to be present, to quiet the incessant chatter in our minds. The constant stimulation from our everyday lives doesn’t typically allow space for spirit (whatever that means to you). Focusing on your breath brings you into the present, wherever you may be, whether a yoga class or in traffic on your way to work. It allows you the luxury of centering yourself, your spirit. From a clinical standpoint, I find this extremely valuable in helping patients with complex and chronic pain.
Your breath is well worth taking notice of. Make yourself a priority and take 5 minutes a day to observe your breath. You can focus on where your body moves, if you feel your chest rise or your belly gently distend. Create ease with your breath, health in your day and peace in your heart. Namaste!