These days everyone has become conscious of conserving energy. When we think of energy conservation we think about the best ways to heat our homes or which car is most fuel-efficient. But how many of us have given any thought to one of the fuels that our bodies use? I’m talking about oxygen. To enjoy higher levels of energy, improve our posture, and lower our response to stress, it’s essential to learn to breathe efficiently, to be fuel-efficient.
Breathing is indispensable and at its best when it is effortless. Most of us don’t think about the way we breathe. We usually take breathing for granted; we don’t realize the harmful effects that faulty breathing can have, or the freedom we can gain by improving how we breathe. Most of us begin life breathing fully and without strain. As we age, our natural breathing abilities and rhythms become compromised for many different reasons. Nevertheless we can return our breathing to its inherent ease and maximal flow. Ironically, the respiratory system reaches its peak efficiency the less we interfere. In fact, the less you do, the better it is. So the trick is, how to do less? How do we get out of the way of our own breathing?
STRESS… AND OTHER OBSTRUCTIONS TO FLOW AND EASE
Breathing is on-going; we are either letting the breath out or allowing the breath in. The air we breathe is the most adaptable fuel you can find. Under normal circumstances, we never have to worry about our next incoming breath. Unfortunately, due to unconscious habits and other stresses on the respiratory system, we often lose our natural breathing rhythms. In today’s world, respiratory complications come from a myriad of causes: environmental pollutants, stress, neuromuscular and skeletal problems, illness such as asthma, headache, backache, the flu, gastrointestinal problems, and last but not least, emotional ups-and-downs. And then there are the various medications prescribed to treat these symptoms, which often interfere with natural breathing rhythms.
We have an internal landscape which is always in motion. Food is being digested, blood is circulating, nerves are passing messages. Breathing actually massages all our internal organs. When we hold our breath, we hinder much of this movement. If we can learn to let go of the breath, we can learn to exhale and create space within the crush of our collapsed, braced bodies. You know those moments when you tighten or push yourself? You’re probably holding your breath. Exploring your own physical and emotional responses to stress can lead to greater self-awareness, and greater freedom and ease. The breath is a great barometer for recognizing those habits that create road-blocks and constrain our lives.
HOW BREATHING WORKS
Let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of the breath. First of all, we need to remind ourselves that the body is three-dimensional and that breathing functions all the way around. The motion of the breath begins with the movement of the diaphragm in the middle of the torso, and expands throughout the ribs and back and a bit into the abdomen. The diaphragm – a horizontal flexible dome lying just below the lungs and heart, separating the chest from the abdomen – is responsible for the filling and emptying of the lungs. Its upward movement helps move air out of the lungs, and its downward movement encourages the lungs to fill.
Intercostals, abdominal and back muscles are equally important to the coordination of the breath and the body. The motion in the back and sides of the ribs, often neglected, is vital to priming the breath. Mobility in the ribs encourages connection with the lower back and the neck. Breathing is at its best when it is synergistic and involuntary.
THE EFFECTS OF MUSCLING; THE BENEFITS OF EASE
So, for synergy, for optimal breathing coordination, it’s best not to attempt to isolate any of the muscles of the respiratory system. It isn’t necessary to suck air in or push the air out. Muscles will tighten in response to those pressures and may cause physical sensations of a tight chest or a restricted airway. In fact, the respiratory system is compromised whenever the breath is held or forced. This is at quite an oxygen cost; when we force the breath with our belly and chest muscles, we weaken our diaphragm — so that it becomes incapable of its full range of movement.
As it turns out, the key to a full and easy inhale, is a full and easy exhale. (Who knew?) If a container is going to be re-filled, it must first be emptied. We’re often told to “Take a deep breath.” Trying to “take” in new air on top of stale air is like wiping a counter with a water-logged sponge. When we breathe out, we are letting go of Co2, a known stressor to the nervous system. Everything depends on how much air gets out, so that a full, easy, automatic inhale can occur. The new fresh air can arrive without willful muscular effort in response to the full release of the breath.
SOUND RIDES THE BREATH
Here’s a natural way to promote a full exhalation…. Let a sound out – such as an easy sigh or a whispered ‘ah.’ Remember not to sink down or collapse your chest as the breath leaves the body. You can think of your exhaled breath as a column of air, fueling the length of your spine. Then a new breath can return, easily and fully, just the way you like it.