By Lisa Morris
Have you ever been in a situation, just about to head into an exam or start a yoga class, and someone tells you to “just breathe”? I’ve sat through countless yoga classes where the teacher tells me to breathe. My mind scurries to find ways to resist or irrationalise this casual phrase: how do you think I’m alive if I haven’t been breathing? Oh wait, now I’m holding my breath…how do I normally breathe? Argh, just breathe normally!
More recently, I’ve adjusted to the idea of actually listening when someone tells me to breathe. When you encounter hippy shit like yoga, meditation and healing therapy, you hear it a lot. In order to aid that process, I looked more into the power of breathing: the power of breathing differently. And I found some pretty crazy facts:
1. A deep breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system. As breathing is automatic, it is controlled by our automatic nervous system. However this nervous system has two modes. The first mode, sympathetic or “fight-or-flight” mode is where we breathe in short breaths, often through our mouth, only into the upper portion of our chest and lungs. This “fight-or-flight” mode is important from an evolutionary perspective, when we needed to be alert in the face of danger – our body is ready to response. We live neither relaxed nor soft but tense and sharp-minded. However, this mode is now our primary functioning mode in today’s society as we are ‘alert’ to the stream of sensations, distractions and demands that are thrown at us. We don’t ‘let our guard down’ and this means, literally, we don’t breathe deeply.
When we exist in this “fight-or-flight” mode, our bodies deliberately do not rest: they store energy and toxins rather than processing and eliminating them; our breath is shorter; our hearts beat faster; our sleep is poorer. There’s a word for this in modern society: stress. Our bodies live in constant stress, evident in our short breaths.
In order to activate the opposite mode, parasympathetic nervous system, and move away from that stress, we can turn this automatic, alert breath into a voluntary deeper breath. And watch as the whole body relaxes.
2. In hippy shit like yoga, they say a deep breath is a way to bring control and awareness to our body. In noticing and then adjusting our breath to a voluntary deeper breath, we start to regain some control over our bodies and, crazily, our minds. By telling ourselves to control our breath, our mind’s focus goes from outward – like a camera madly scanning and categorising everything around us – to inward – swivelling the camera to film ourselves: inhaling… exhaling… inhaling… exhaling.
Yogis say this ‘watching the breath’ is the first step towards ‘quietening the mind’, stopping it from creating constant flip-books of everything it sees and hears, and bringing it back to ourselves. Ultimately, they call it the first step on the path to peace.
Try this awesome breath so that maybe, next time someone tells you to “just breathe”, you won’t end up holding your breath: