If you were asked whether you know how to breathe, your response would likely be a slightly confused, albeit conviction-filled, “Of course I know how to breathe!” What kind of question is that? you may ask yourself.
What kind of question, indeed.
To answer it meaningfully, let’s explore your breath as it is in your body right now.
Start by bringing your attention to the breath, observing without controlling it. Notice its location by assessing where your body moves when you inhale and exhale. Does your chest puff out on the inhales? Next note the breath’s rate. Is it slow and steady? Are your inhales and exhales the same or different lengths? Finally, check your posture. Can you feel any difference in your breath when you slouch or sit upright? Now, inhale deeply before sighing heavily through your mouth. When you took that big breath in, did your shoulders rise to meet your ears or did the movement start in your belly? Was the intensity of the exhale front-loaded or even throughout?
Having brought your awareness up-close to the breath, has your answer to the initial question changed in any way—do you know how to breathe?
While there are no right or wrong answers, there is a way to breathe that supports physical and mental health. Diaphragmatic breathing—taking in and pushing out breaths all the way down to and from the belly—ensures optimal use of lung capacity. By extension, belly breathing optimises the body’s intake of oxygen, the key element fuelling essential organs and functions. What’s more, the breath bridges the mind and body. While breath can be altered by emotions—e.g. panic, fear or anger causing our breath to lose its depth— the opposite is also true: taking a deep breath during a moment of emotional upset signals to the body that everything is okay.
Belly breathing happens automatically in our sleep, but most of us have lost our breath, so to speak, during waking hours. In the body, this manifests as, instead of belly expansion and contraction, breath-associated movement that is no deeper than our chest, or even shoulders. Likewise, as we make our way through our day and indeed our lives, posture weakens and, with it, so does the ability for the breath to flow freely in and out of the body. Slouching causes tight chest muscles, which restricts the expansion of the rib cage, further reinforcing our habit of shallow breathing.
What’s more is that many of us over-breathe, or hyperventilate, by exhaling more than we inhale. Over-breathing causes carbon dioxide to be expelled more quickly than the body can produce it, increasing pH and leading to symptoms that range from mild, such as shortness of breath, increased heartrate and frequent yawns, to severe, including suffering from vertigo, chest pain and anxiety.
While it isn’t practical to go through daily life with an overly heightened focus on how we are breathing, there are measures you can take to reinforce this mind-body bridge to create a strong structure that is conducive to physical and mental wellbeing. The practice of controlled breathing, known as pranayama, is one such measure.
In pranayama practices, we sustain a reduced breath rate, which temporarily increases carbon dioxide levels. As a result, more oxygen is released into the blood, allowing it to flow through and fuel the body.
Pranayama’s benefits are plentiful, from cleansing the body of toxins and the mind of stress to developing concentration and much more. Regularly dedicating time to exercise the breath through control can help better breathing habits become second-nature, an invaluable resource during times of ease and effort alike.
One of the most accessible pranayama exercises is Sama Vritti or box breathing. When practising Sama Vritta, we control the breath with diaphragmatic breathing to match the duration of our inhales and exhales. Not only is this technique accessible in terms of its level of ease; you can also employ it at any time or in any place, from your asana practice and your desk to your bed and beyond.
To enjoy the benefits of this calming exercise, join me for a free practice with the video linked below. If at any point you feel the need to return to your normal breathing, do so and rejoin whenever you are ready.
Try Sama Vritti now with the video!
Listen anytime, anywhere that you have your phone: download the free MP3!
Please note that it is important to practice pranayama safely and, if you are new to the practice, with proper instruction. As a certified yoga teacher whose training detailed pranayama and the Sama Vritti technique—not to mention, as an avid pranayama practitioner myself—I am qualified and equipped to offer this practice safely. Enjoy!