“By changing patterns of breathing we can change our emotional states, how we think, and how we interact with the world.”
– Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, Harvard-trained psychiatrist
You have probably already noticed that breathing is the most fundamental biological process. Yet, it remains one of the deepest mysteries of the human body.
One of many curious aspects of this interesting process is that it can be both an involuntary and voluntary action. It can also be the result and the cause of our internal state.
What many ancient spiritual practices mentioned for thousands of years, modern science is beginning to unveil. With each breath we take, we influence our physical body and our psychological state in ways that, still today, we are yet to understand fully.
Let’s dive deeper into this topic and start by examining the origin of the word “breath.”
Ancient references to breathing
The ancient Greek word for “breath” is Pneuma, which could mean either “spirit,” “soul,” and “psyche.” It is also interesting to note that the term “spirit” comes from the Latin word “spiritus,” which means breathing.
In Hinduism, breath is also considered the same thing as spirit. In Hindu culture, the breath is how one can control and influence their internal psychological state, their prana. Prana means energy and vital life force. Pranayama, “the control of prana,” controls this energy through breath control. This practice is one of the eight limbs of Yoga, an ancient Hindu tradition that seeks to attain a state of “union” and “oneness” within oneself and with the divine.
We can also find the importance of breathing well represented in Ancient China. Qi Qing, a millennia-old system that combines gentle movements and breathing techniques, was the first traditional Chinese medicine field to emerge.
Qi Gong Practice. Source: https://youtu.be/cwlvTcWR3Gs
In Buddhism, Breathing was used to improve the quality of life and enter expanded levels of consciousness.
Even in the bible, we see a compelling reference to the relationship of breath and life force. In Genesis 2:7, we can read: “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
These fascinating references are fuelling our curiosity and making us wonder if there are hidden secrets behind this simple body process that is so familiar yet so mysterious to us.
As we further our research, we realize that breathing might represent a bridge between the conscious and subconscious levels. It allows us to tap into our bodies and directly and indirectly influence our nervous system.
When we look through the lens of evolution, the possibility of breathing unconsciously and still having vast control over this process was one of the critical factors that allowed our mammal ancestors to find food, escape predators, and adapt to different environments.
Unfortunately, evolution does not always mean progress. In the past decades, we’ve been experiencing a worsening in the way humans breathe, which might influence our health and well-being in various ways.
To understand breathing, it might be essential to know a little more about a particular muscle.
The diaphragm, the “second-heart”
This long and flexible muscle separates the chest from the abdomen. It is known to be involved in many different functions, such as swallowing, speaking, and walking, naming a few. However, it is most known for being the primary muscle used in breathing.
For us to breathe, the diaphragm operates in a very simple way. When you inhale, it contracts and drops downward, creating a space that allows the lungs to expand as they fill up with air. When you exhale, it relaxes, pressing back upward against the lungs, helping release carbon dioxide.
The more we study the diaphragm, the more we discover how exquisite it is. It influences the body’s metabolic balance, blood circulation and is also known to affect our emotional and psychological states. The secret resides in deep abdominal breathing.
You might have heard the term “breathe through your belly.” As you might wonder, we can only breathe through our lungs. However, this expression refers to the process of diaphragmatic breathing. When you breathe deeply, the diaphragm will press against the abdominal organs, causing your belly to expand. With this expansion, a large amount of blood is moved throughout the body, greatly aiding the heart in its mission of supplying oxygen and other nutrients to the whole body. This type of deep breathing will slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.
Now we understand a little better why the diaphragm is sometimes referred to as the “second heart.” Like our pumping muscle, it has its own rhythm; it contributes to blood circulation and can affect the heartbeat rate and strength.
You can try it for yourself! Find a comfortable position, sit quietly and observe your breathing. Feel the air flowing through your nostrils. Then, while you take slower and deeper breaths, place your hand in your belly and notice how it expands. This simple exercise alone may cause pleasant feelings of relaxation, as it activates our parasympathetic nervous system – the part of our nervous system that is responsible for relaxation, in other words, our “rest and digest” mode.
Practicing Pranayama in one of Breathe’s nature experiences
Losing touch with deep belly breathing somewhat inhibits our ability to go into “rest and digest” mode more easily. That means we tend to keep tension and stress in our bodies and minds for longer. A body that is continuously functioning through the sympathetic nervous system – our stress response: “fight or flight” mode, can have a higher probability of cardiovascular disease, a decreased immune response, and can trigger more inflammatory processes. In other words, a stressed body that doesn’t breathe properly has a higher chance of illness.
Why did we lose touch with deep breathing?
After knowing all of this, one question arises: if deep belly breathing is natural and innate, why did we lose touch with this powerful self-healing mechanism? Some possible explanations may be related to our cultural norms.
In our western society, we are often encouraged to suppress certain feelings and emotions. Every time we repress anger, hide our anxiety, or hold back tears, that will disrupt the natural breathing rhythms, and with it, our whole body. Emotion repression also creates tension within the body – and especially so in the abdominal area, leaving less space for us to breathe deeply. All of this can contribute to chronic stress and tension in our bodies, further inhibiting us from breathing properly.
Another factor that might explain our loss of touch with the inborn capacity to breathe through the belly is our desire to pursue the ideal body image idealized in our modern culture. A flat belly is considered attractive, and so any expansion of the abdomen is discouraged, pushing people towards “chest breathing,” which ends up being shallow breathing.
It is time to truly Breathe again
Breathing is one of the most fascinating processes in our body. It is one of the few things that accompany us through our whole existence – our life begins with an inspiration and ends with an exhalation.
Getting to know the breath is truly getting to know ourselves on a deeper level. Leading us to tap into our inner rhythms and inviting us to create intimacy with our own body, breathing has the potential to take us on a wonderful journey of self-discovery.