“What Does Breathing Have To Do With Health and Happiness?”
Unless you have an illness or impairment that affects your breathing, most of us take breathing for granted. We don’t give it much attention. Breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system, which operates below our conscious awareness. In other words, your body takes care of breathing for you, without you having to pay attention.
If breathing happens on its own, why talk about it? Wouldn’t we be better served focusing on more pressing needs, on issues that demand our attention? Why do some consider conscious breathing as a key to health and happiness? Why is placing attention on your breathing so important?
First and foremost, breathing is the basis of your physical life. Your official entry into this life is your first breath out of the womb and your exit is signaled by your last breath. Breathing serves the obvious function of bringing oxygen into your body and releasing carbon dioxide. Yet breathing serves several other important functions.
Breathing regulates the balance between the two sides of your autonomic nervous system, your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, or your “action” and “recovery” modes, respectively. When you inhale, your sympathetic nervous system is activated; when you exhale your parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Having balance between these two aspects of your autonomic nervous system is crucial to physiological balance and health.
If breathing is so important and our bodies do it for us automatically, what could go wrong? How can we get out of balance, if we have this wonderful, automatic, balancing mechanism? Is there some reason why our bodies stop returning us to balance? Why wouldn’t they just keep doing their job?
The simple answer is that we give our bodies too much to do. Our bodies do their best to keep up with our demands. But, when our system is overloaded and stressed, this affects the way that we are able maintain balance.
It can be hard to turn down the busyness in your life and your mind. It can also be challenging to deal with the feelings of anxiety that motivate over-busyness and the exhaustion that results from it. When your sympathetic nervous system is hyperactive from trying to “get everything done” in your life, your system can go into a state of constant overwhelm. Imbalance can become a chronic condition.
Living in a state of “overdrive” can lead to many unwanted symptoms, including: “elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, headache, temporo-mandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ), general muscle tension, pain, anxiety, worry, digestive problems, incessant mental chatter, attention deficiency (inability to concentrate), a lack of energy, and sleeping problems. It is important to note that the state of the autonomic nervous system affects every cell in the body! If the autonomic nervous system is on heightened alert, every cell is on alert.” (Stephen Ellliot, The New Science of Breath p.7)
Are any of these symptoms familiar to you? Do you ever feel like you just can’t get it all done? Do you feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day or that your life is an endless “TO DO” list? This experience of “constant demand” is a dominant cultural pattern. Even as you sleep, your body is processing the events of the day. The end result is that your body is on sympathetic alert 24/7.
So what’s all that have to do with breathing? Again, we quote from Stephen Elliot in The New Science of Breath:
“Autonomic balance is governed by the frequency and depth of breathing. Optimal homeostasis is literally dependent upon correct breathing.” (p. xx The New Science of Breath)
Living in overdrive can lead to chronic, shallow, rapid, and restricted breathing. Conscious, regular, deep, slow breathing can bring you back into balance. You can use conscious attention to breathing as a tool to bring you back to center, back into the present moment, and back to feeling like yourself again. Conscious breathing can help you access positive feelings of well-being. It can help you connect with a natural state of happiness.
In addition to the psychological benefits of breathing well, there is a wealth of health benefits. The first, of course, is that when you breathe fully you receive maximal oxygen with minimum energy output. You more fully inflate your lungs and extract the most energy from each breath.
The muscular action of breathing fully also massages your internal organs and enhances the digestion and absorption of nutrients. The action of breathing regulates your heart rate and blood pressure and communicates this information throughout your body as a whole. This calms your physiology and brings you back into balance. For these and other reasons, breathing governs the effectiveness of most every physiological function.
From this brief introduction, I hope that you can see the physical and psychological power of consciously breathing well. Though you may approach conscious breathing at first for health and happiness, attention to breathing is also a doorway to intuitive knowing and spiritual connection. In next month’s article, we’ll explore three keys to optimal breathing for health, happiness, and spiritual growth. I’ll show you how to practice better breathing.
While you’re awaiting those three keys to better breathing, learn how to shift from any negative feeling to a positive state of well-being with my free 7 minute release technique:
Copyright Kevin Schoeninger
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