The Power of Breath

“Inspiration means to breathe in. Inspire. Spirit. Life.” – Wim Hof

Our breath and breathing is often something we take for granted. In most people, it’s something that just happens, without giving it much consideration. Often when doing even the simplest of guided breathing exercises with somebody for the first time, there is an ‘awakening’ of some sort.

Breath & Spirit

As Joanne Sara Avison explores in her book, Yoga, Fascia, Anatomy & Movement: “Breath is synonymous with aspects of spirit in many languages… In English ‘respiration’ comes from ‘re-spiriting’ or bringing spirit in, as inspiration implies illumination.” This feeling of being ‘re-spirited’ is something most of us feel after taking a few moments of bringing awareness to our breathing.

Our breath is our connection with the world around us – we are literally ‘drawing in’ our surroundings and blending it with our own being, and then giving some of ourselves back. In Oriental Medicine, the Lungs are grouped with the Large Intestine in the Metal Element, with the nose as the sense organ. The spiritual aspect connected with the Metal Element is that of taking in the new and ‘letting go’ of what is no longer needed. You can see physiologically how that would relate to the Lungs and the Large Intestine and that of being ‘inspired’.

“Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked in through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread throughout the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.” Breath by James Nestor

Breath as Rhythm Keeper

There are 3 main rhythms in our bodies – our breathing, our heart beat and our Cerebrospinal fluid rhythm. Each of these rhythms are interdependent and have an affect on each other. Even though breathing happens sub-consciously, it is the one that we have the most control over.

When doing any slow, rhythmic breathing exercises, the affect can be measured on the heart rate, slowing it down. The knock-on effect is a calming of the mind and an overall sense of calm.

“Our bodies operate most efficiently in a state of balance, pivoting between action and relaxation, daydreaming and reasoned thought. This balance is influenced by the nasal cycle, and may even be controlled by it.” Breath by James Nestor

Breath & Our Nervous System

The breath has an affect on our heart rate and our minds via our nervous system. It has been found that a breathing practice with a focus on the inhale (i.e. inhaling for longer than exhaling), will stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. This is our body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that puts the body in a more elevated state of alertness and readiness. According to James Nestor in his book Breath, breathing through the right nostril also has the same affect: “The right nostril is a gas pedal. When you’re inhaling primarily through this channel, circulation speeds up, your body gets hotter, and cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase… [it] will also feed more blood to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, specifically to the prefrontal cortex, which has been associated with logical decisions, language, and computing.”

The opposite will happen when extending our exhale (i.e. exhaling for longer than inhaling), which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This is our “rest and digest” system which lowers blood pressure, cools the body and reduces anxiety. James Nestor also points out that this same affect happens when breathing through the left nostril: “it works as a kind of brake system to the right nostril’s accelerator… Left-nostril breathing shifts blood flow to the opposite side of the prefrontal cortex, to the area that influences creative thought…”

Already you can see how simply changing the rate of your inhale and exhale, and focusing on one nostril or the other, can impact your state of body and mind. This is very empowering to us!

Optimal Breathing

“People get hung up on getting the breathing right. They think it is too simple to work… Don’t think so hard about these things, just get the breath in. Into the belly, the chest, and the head – and let it go.” – The Wim Hof Method

Whilst there are many different types of breathing practices being taught, as Wim Hof emphasises, we don’t have to make it too complicated! Since many of us are often so out of touch with our bodies and our breathing, it might help to know what optimal breathing is so we can at the very least practice that.

“The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.” Breath by James Nestor

So by counting to 5 on an inhale, taking a moment, and then exhaling for a count of 5 and taking another moment before inhaling, we can get a feel for the ideal general breathing rate. To get a feel of the subtle body movements whilst breathing, you could place your hands gently on your belly and, on an inhale, feel your chest expand and then your belly expand. On an exhale, feel it flow in the opposite direction – belly contracts and then ribcage contracts. You can visualise it like a wave gently coming in as everything rhythmically expands, then everything sequentially and rhythmically contracts as the wave flows out again.

Breath & Disease

Now that we have a better idea of what optimal breathing looks like, let’s explore what happens when breathing is not optimal.

Joanne Sarah Avison refers to ‘paradoxical breathing’ as a breathing pattern where the movement of the body is opposite to what we’ve just explored (i.e. expanding on exhale and contracting on inhale). Paradoxical breathing can often be experienced by those with various pathologies, including fatigue

It has also been proven in various studies that nose-breathing is better for us than mouth breathing. In a Japanese study it was found that mouth breathing disturbed the oxygen delivery to the prefrontal cortex, creating ADHD symptoms in those that had a predisposition to mouth breathing. It has also been found that mouth breathing had a negative effect on sleep and also contributed to periodontal disease.

So, when practicing optimal breathing rhythm, we should do so breathing through our nose instead of our mouth!

“… the nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weather vane to our emotions.” Breath by James Nestor

“We are working to enhance and recognise (or even reveal) the most profound and subtle forces that are already there. The purpose is to accumulate valuable default breathing patterns rather than learn breathing techniques, if they are imposed. It is a subtle but important distinction.” Yoga, Fascia, Anatomy & Movement by Joanne Sarah Avison

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