Breathing is so ordinary, so mundane, that its true significance can easily pass us by. For thousands of years, people have used simple breathing exercises to relieve anxiety, stress, depression, and even chronic pain.
Some even claim they lead to spiritual enlightenment.
But I am as spiritual as a housebrick, so instead, I use them to stay positive, focused, and appreciative in a crazy world.
I first discovered the art of breathing as part of my research into mindfulness meditation, about which I have written three books, including Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Mindfulness has been clinically proven to beat depression and enhance happiness, clarity of thought, and even decision-making and creativity. And correct breathing is its cornerstone. My latest book, The Art of Breathing, gathers a range of mindful breathing techniques into one volume that allows anyone to incorporate some mindfulness into their life.
These techniques work because of the way your breath reflects and amplifies your emotions. Incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression. It works like this: Momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress.
Breathing then becomes a little faster and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed... It's a vicious circle.
But there is an alternative.
A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm tranquillity. Soothing hormones flow through the body, calming negative thoughts. You begin to relax and breathe even more slowly and deeply... It's a virtuous circle.
To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this simple exercise:
- Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Close your eyes.
- Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in, and out.
- Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Relax into the breath’s fluidity.
- Within a few breaths your heart will begin to slow and beat more effectively. Your breath will start to become deeper and more rhythmic. You will begin to relax and think more clearly.
Most of us breathe incorrectly, especially when we’re sitting slumped at desks all day long. This interferes with the natural motion of the lungs, chest and shoulders.
Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.
When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work.
But the secondary muscles are designed to shoulder only 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed. If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.
You can counteract such tension by using a simple breath-based meditation. All you need is a chair, your body, some air, your mind — and that’s it.
- Sit erect in a straight-backed chair with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.
- Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. Stay in touch with the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath.
- When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the sensations of breathing. In. Out.
- The moment you realise your mind has wandered away from the breath is the meditation. It is a moment of mindfulness.
- After a few minutes, or longer if you can manage, open your eyes and soak up your surroundings.
After spending a few minutes practicing this meditation, you’ll feel less anxious, stressed and unhappy. You’ll have gained a bit of mental clarity and started to realise that your breath is one of your greatest assets. It is naturally meditative and always with you. And peace is only ever a single breath away.
The Art of Breathing: The Secret fo Living Mindfully is published in the U.S. by Conari Press.