As we rush through our day to day lives we are often unaware of the many processes going on within our bodies. Breathing is largely unconscious and second nature but does that mean we are maximising this powerful tool?
If you have tried yoga or meditation you may be aware of how breathing controls and regulates more functions and has a greater impact on the body than most of us give it credit for.
Research tells us that controlled slow deep breathing, in the manner practised in yoga and meditation has a range of health benefits including:
- Calming nerves and decreasing the effects of stress and anxiety
- Increasing our energy levels
- Improving cardiovascular function during exercise
- Improving mood and relaxation
- Assisting with mental focus and clarity
So how does it work?
Most of us have experienced the frustration of lying awake at night with some issue rushing around our brain. While it can sometimes feel proactive at the time, I’ve rarely found that a sought after solution miraculously appears out of the darkness at 2am. Dealing with the lack of sleep the following day is no fun either.
Mindful breathing gives us a tool to counteract the body’s natural fight or flight reaction to stressful situations. The ability to harness our mind and focus, particularly in times of stress or pressure, is a powerful skill that can be applied in everyday situations. Like dealing with our children’s temper tantrums, a stressful work meeting, an interview for a new role or when you finally get tucked up in bed only to find that your mind is whirring when you should be sleeping.
In the sedentary world we live in, our bodies are becoming accustomed to a type of technology driven hibernation. Next time you sit down to your computer or behind the wheel of your car, check in with your breathing (and your posture). Studies show that our breathing can become irregular and passive as we focus on the perceived importance of the next deadline we are chasing or appointment we are rushing to.
Not only is regulated breathing important for normal function, it can help to improve cardio recovery during exercise or to bring our breathing back to normal levels more quickly following exertion like tackling a flight of stairs. It can also improve strength training and recovery as it helps to re-oxygenate our muscles during exercise. The flow on affect is better oxygenation in our blood stream and our brains to assist with energy levels and alertness.
Where do I start?
In the practise of Hatha Yoga breathing, mindfulness and physical exercises come together in a way that provides a unique focus on how breathing can provide energy, clarity and focus. While it could be easy to write off Yoga as the current fitness fad, if longevity is anything to go by there must be something in it. Yoga roots in ancient India date back to around the 6th Century BC.
I was a somewhat sceptical convert to Yoga, having always preferred those kinds of punishing workouts that leave you shaky afterwards and sore for days. I now include Yoga as part of my regular exercise programme and the results are undeniable. Considerably less joint and back pain, increased flexibility along with improved core strength and improved breathing during recovery periods in my other workouts. The ability to focus on nothing else but my breathing for 5 to 10 minutes at the end of a Yoga session, while initially challenging, is now something I look forward to for the simple feel good factor it provides.
If you think Yoga involves too much lying around on a mat for your liking, maybe look into the different types on offer. There are lots of different classes from active Vinyasa/Power Yoga flows, through to more introspective restorative Yoga and some that combine elements of both. Be prepared to be challenged though, I have seen some fairly fit individuals shaking and grunting with the effort to maintain some of the more active Yoga poses.
Yoga can only be humbling if you approach it with ego, and what you gain in return far outweighs the momentary anguish at watching a 67-year-old pull off a perfect headstand while you’re still trying to nail downward facing dog.
If you don’t possess the courage (or the active wear ensemble) to hit a class, there are lots of great beginner’s classes for free on YouTube. Either way make sure you find a qualified instructor that explains body positioning for each pose and which muscles you should feel working or stretching during the pose, to get the most out of your time.
If you would prefer to try mediation or mindfulness without movement to focus solely on breathing and focus, there are good apps you can download on your phone as a guide to start a regular practise, like Headspace, Mindbody, Smiling Mind and many more.
Be prepared to be challenged in the beginning, as you attempt to sit quietly focusing only on your breathing without thoughts distracting and dragging your mind off to a place that doesn’t remotely resemble where you started off. Maintaining mental focus takes practise. Think of the mind as a muscle that needs regular exercise to strengthen it. Just like other kinds of exercise there are many benefits to be had and many inspirational people who swear by a regular practise.
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” Amit Ray
“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there. Buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks everyday”. Deepak Chopra