We breathe in and out 25,000 times a day without giving it a thought. But experts say that our breathing patterns mirror our emotional, mental and physical state, and they change depending on our feelings, thoughts and the type of activity we are engaged in.
During times of crisis, deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. "Stability and consistency under pressure rely on robust nervous and endocrine systems supported by good breathing," says Claire Dale, author of Physical Intelligence.
Are you breathing right?
"If we are breathing effectively, air enters the lower two-thirds of the lungs and we take in enough to fuel the body and the brain, breathing diaphragmatically," says Dale.
When our breath is shallow, which is also known as clavicular breathing, she says that the collarbones (clavicles) move up and down, and only the top third of the lungs fill.
"During this type of breathing, our thoughts, feelings and actions become more erratic; we can’t think as clearly under pressure or balance our emotions as easily. We are far less stable."
Why is the way we breathe important?
In addition to keeping us alive by supplying oxygen, the action of breathing rids our body of toxic waste.
"Every time we breathe, the stomach, intestines, liver, spleen and kidneys are displaced by the movement of the diaphragm and the expansion of the lungs, leaving us less prone to toxins building up around our organs, which could cause disease and poor digestion," says Dale.
"Also, the solar plexus – a spaghetti junction of nerves situated near the spine behind the stomach (an emotional centre) – becomes stimulated by the movement of the diaphragm, enabling us to feel our emotions more strongly.
"If our breathing technique is poor, the diaphragm becomes locked too tightly around the solar plexus, leading us to hold back feelings, procrastinate and perhaps even delay making important decisions."
Here, Dale shares a few simple breathing exercises that can help to keep you cool, calm and collected…
1. Stress buster
"At least ten minutes of daily paced breathing can help to keep cortisol levels under control.
"Breathe diaphragmatically, in through the nose, out through the mouth with a steady count-in and steady count-out. Your in and out counts don’t have to match.
"A longer out-breath helps to dispel CO2, which increases cortisol if it builds up in the base of the lungs. Paced breathing with a longer out-breath is called ‘recovery breathing’, and is especially helpful if you’re feeling panicked."
2. Energy hit
"To give yourself an instant energy hit, choose a fast breathing pace – briskly filling and emptying the lungs, and counting, for example, two in and two out.
"This boosts the levels of a chemical in our body called DHEA, which gives us lasting energy reserves that power us steadily forwards."
3. Sleep solver
"Stretching stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes you.
"One great pre-sleep stretch to try is prayer position or child’s pose. Kneel and place your hands on the floor just in front of you. Walk your hands forward slowly, folding your chest over your thighs.
"Widen your knees and enjoy the back stretch as you walk your arms forwards.
"If you are supple enough, your head may rest on the floor (if not, use a cushion). Let your neck relax and simply breathe. This promotes slower, deeper breathing to imitate the sleeping breath."