Learning to control our breath is one of the most powerful (and free!) tools we have for improving concentration, managing stress, developing optimal health, and drawing us closer to our Creator.
In Genesis 1, we learn that the creator breathed life into creation! He breathed life into humanity. Our breath connects us to our maker. Our breath connects us to ourselves. So, connecting with our breath connects us to the most real and true things about us… the Latins refer to this as “imago Dei”, made in the image of God.
Deep and rhythmic breathing helps us calm our thoughts, slow our heart rate, and regulate our autonomic nervous system. And at a practical and physical level, proper breathing enhances lung capacity, strengthens the immune system, and regulates the neuroendocrine system.
When a high-pressure situation arises, it helps us control the physical and mental response to stress, preventing us from being overwhelmed by anxiousness. When used during meditation, this technique helps us clear our mind and focus on what we’re aiming to accomplish.
The Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is responsible for maintaining homeostasis within your body. The actions of the ANS occur independent of your consciousness, as these involuntary functions (such as breathing and heart contractions) are required for survival.
The ANS is made up of two divisions that connect your brain to your body:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight)
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest)
Both parts work to counteract each other and keep the body in balance.
The sympathetic division is responsible for the “fight or flight” response and prepares the body for physical exertion.
When we are anxious, nervous or stressed out by events in our life or simply the thoughts about those events, the brain (via the nerves of the ANS) will turn on the Sympathetic part of that system (the Fight or Flight response). This results in things like increased heart rate, increased adrenaline, increases in blood pressure and decreased digestion.
Think of the last time you received bad news or were super stressed… remember how your heart started beating hard, you started to sweat or you even felt a churning in your stomach? That was your Sympathetic nervous system engaging.
The Parasympathetic division calms the body down and is the “rest and digest” state of being.
Trouble arises when we spend too much time in a sympathetic state and don’t allow our bodies the opportunity to shift into a parasympathetic state.
Breathing is the best avenue to quickly shift into this restful place and allow your body to optimize itself. What makes breathing so powerful is that the lungs and heart can communicate to the brain. This essentially convinces the brain that things are calm and peaceful, even when there are still stressful circumstances. This improves digestion, increases glucose metabolism and decreases cortisol release… all of which which ultimately improve fat loss efforts.
Most of our typical day is spent taking small shallow breaths rather than controlling that breathing pattern.
When you make the inhales longer than the exhales, for example, by using a two-second inhale and a one-second exhale, and you keep this up for several minutes, your heart will begin to beat faster. This sends a feedback message to the brain that stimulates the Sympathetic portion of the ANS.
When you stop to think about making the exhale longer than your inhale, for example, by using a 3-4 second inhale, pause and a using 4-6 second exhale, this triggers the vagus nerve to engage the Parasympathetic portion of the ANS.
The vagus (Latin for wandering) nerve is far reaching, extending from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles.
Activation of the vagus nerve keeps your immune system in check and releases an assortment of hormones and enzymes such as acetylcholine and oxytocin. This results in reductions in inflammation, improvements in memory, and feelings of relaxation. Vagus nerve stimulation through conscious breathing has also been shown to reduce allergic reactions and tension headaches.
Belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, conscious breathing or boxed breathing are all common practices to engage with your breath. All have similar benefits, but today we are going to discuss boxed breathing.
I’m going to use the term boxed breathing because is easy to understand visually. Refer to the image to see what I mean.
Step by Step Instructions
To begin, sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and begin breathing in through your nose and exhaling through pursed lips, softly. Do this a few times to get a rhythm.
Inhale for a count of four, nice and slow… 1, 2, 3, 4
HOLD the breath in for a count of four… 1, 2, 3, 4
Exhale gently, counting out for six. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Draw your belly button in and ensure all of the air is released from your lungs.
Finish your first cycle by holding the breath out for a count of four…. 1, 2, 3, 4
Then repeat. Keep your breathing even and smooth.
If the 4 count feels too long, it’s ok. Try decreasing it to what feels comfortable to you. The most important thing is that the exhale is 1-2 counts longer than the inhale, not the absolute length of the breath.
If you are doing this for the first time or are feeling extra stressed, this exercise will feel more challenging. It takes practice, but remember, these slow rhythmic breathes help to shift your body into a restful/parasympathetic state.
Keep in mind, you can do this exercise anytime, anywhere. Try engaging in this breathing exercise the next time you are feeling anxious or “up tight”. To maximize the experience, begin to set aside little chunks of time to practice breathing when you are able to focus on clearing your might. This is a fantastic way to start or end your day!
To better understand the roles of your Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous systems check out THIS VIDEO.
If you’re interested in a WONDERFUL guided form of breathing meditation, check THIS OUT by Kat Harris.