The previous article talked about how we can relax our way to success. This article will talk about how to take a breath to relax.
The breath is our most powerful tool to bring about a state of deep relaxation. By the end of this article you will have a renewed appreciation for the power of your breath and you will know how to wield your own breath to relax whenever you feel the need to do so.
So let’s get to it!
The Breath – Our Constant Companion
There is one activity which we begin doing a few moments after exciting our mother’s womb until we pass away from this world. If we ever stop doing the activity for too long, we are guaranteed to die; just two minutes without oxygen is enough for cells to start dying. This activity is more crucial to our survival than eating, drinking, sleeping or excreting, yet most of us rarely give it any attention.
That activity is breathing.
Breathing is the only activity necessary for our survival which we can do both consciously and unconsciously.
You are now breathing consciously. See?
And in a few moments you’ll forget about your breath again and will continue doing it unconsciously.
It’s the only activity which behaves that way. We can’t eat, drink nor excrete unconsciously (I hope). We need to be aware to do those activities. It could be argued that sleep can be done consciously, through “lucid dreaming”, but that’s an ability that most of us need to practice. We can’t do it right out of the box.
Not the case with breathing. Everyone can breathe consciously or unconsciously. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only animal who has that capability. Marine mammals can and do hold their breath when they submerge themselves, but can you imagine one of them choosing to hold their breath or altering it in some other form just for the fun of it? I can’t.
Humans are the only animals who can breathe consciously. This is an ability we can wield to our advantage in practically any situation.
What Breathing Does
What follows is a super short and simplified explanation of how breathing works.
Every time we take a breath we fill our lungs with oxygen, among other things. Within the lungs there are specialized structures called alveoli (pictured), where oxygen is dissolved into our blood and exchanged for carbon dioxide (image author: domdomegg). This process is known as gas exchange.
Carbon dioxide is a waste material, it is the result of the cellular metabolic processes which provide us with the energy we need to live. Not only does breathing allow us to take in essential oxygen into our bodies, it also allows us to eliminate carbon dioxide waste.
Oxygen is essential for all the living cells of our body, not only does it provide energy to all of them, it’s also used in the production of new cells. The average body of a human being is made up of 30 to 40 trillion cells. Not all of these cells are alive though, the cells in our epidermis (the outermost layer of skin), our hair and our bones are all dead, so they no longer metabolize oxygen.
But all of our living cells metabolize oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide in order to function properly.
Cells are the smallest living units which comprise us. We can consider them as little versions of us. What’s good for our cells is good for us. There are trillions and trillions of living cells in our bodies and they all need oxygen to live. This is a gargantuan task!
Good thing we’re all equipped to handle it.
Our breathing, combined with our circulatory system, deliver all the oxygen our cells need.
What The Circulatory System Does
The human circulatory system comprises the heart, blood and blood vessels. It’s in charge of making sure all 30 to 40 trillion cells in our body get what they need to do their jobs. Every one of your neurons, liver cells, bone marrow cells and the cells in the roots of your hair and your teeth, are connected to and supplied by the circulatory system.
While medical science over the last 150 years believed that the heart was responsible for pumping blood throughout our blood vessels, we have learned that is not the heart’s main function. In other words, the heart is more than just a pump!
The heart’s secondary function is helping pump blood through our blood vessels. Blood is our life substance. It carries the oxygen our cells need to live and the carbon dioxide they excrete. Blood carries other things too, but they are not within the scope of this article.
I want you to get the idea that our cells are all connected to a miraculous oxygen distribution system. No cell is left out. Every second these trillions of cells are consuming the oxygen we breathe, using it to grow, heal and multiply.
It’s our responsibility to make sure we breathe so that our cells can get the oxygen they need to thrive. With optimally oxygenated blood, we thrive. Anything less than that and we suffer.
The Importance Of Full Breathing
Our breath is responsible for our intake of live-giving oxygen. When we fail to breathe properly we deprive our body of oxygen. This comes with a plethora of negative consequences:
- The body is in a constant state of stress by producing stress hormones.
- We experience brain fog.
- We feel tired and lethargic.
- Our muscles tire easily.
- We don’t get the nutrients we need.
- We experience insomnia or dizzy spells.
Poor breathing is responsible for many common chronic diseases. Yet modern medicine by-and-large ignores the crucial role proper breathing plays in our health.
It might surprise you that most adults in the western world do not know how to breathe. Through a combination of excessive sitting, constrictive clothing and outright forgetting, proper breathing has become a rarity among westerners. And I include myself in this statement.
Most westerners breathe using only the top third of our lungs. This is a stress-triggered way of breathing. By looking at a newborn breathing we can see the proper way of doing so. Proper breathing starts in the belly.
Check out this video of Dr. Surya Pierce to get an idea of what full breathing looks like:
As Surya mentions at the end of the video, it takes practice to breathe this way. This gives you an idea of what full breathing is.
My Experience With A Full Breather
In 2019 I was living in the Czech Republic. While there I had a kettlebell training session with Zdeneck, the Czech kettlebell champion. Zdeneck is a brick-house of a man, taller than me by half a foot and corded in muscle. He taught me how to improve my form while using the kettlebell.
During our training session, Zdeneck told me that if I wanted to get good at using the kettlebell I needed to learn how to breathe properly. He said that power in sports comes from the breath. He instructed me to poke my fingers into my belly, above the pelvis and breathe using my belly. He said that when my fingers were pushed out by my breathing I was doing it correctly.
Zdeneck then went on to tell me about the Czech athlete, Jan Zelezný, considered to be the best javelin thrower of all time. His world record javelin throw of 98.48 meters, set in 1996, remains uncontested as of this writing. Zelezný was trained by a professor of physiology, Pavel Kolar, who trained him to breathe properly.
The breath is the source of our power. Ask any elite athlete who’s sport requires raw power, like the javelin throw or the kettlebell, and he/she will concur.
The Spiritual Breath
The breath is a monumental topic which is unsurpassed in its relevance to the human condition. We all breathe, after all.
Ancient yogic traditions in India have long recognized the breath as the source of our life energy. Prana is the Sanskrit word for “breath”, “life force” or “vital principle”; it permeates reality on all levels. Our breath is how we take in prana.
Of course, this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the spiritual significance of the breath. It is a rich topic, one which I read about briefly, years ago in a book called “The Power Of The Yogic Breath” – the book claimed that all disease could be eradicated by proper breathing.
The Scientific Breath
Scientific research is showing that being mindful of our breathing, paying attention to it and manipulating it, is one of the most effective ways of to lower everyday stress and regulate our mood and our metabolism.
Most people tend to breathe too quickly. The average person takes between 16 and 20 breaths a minute. When the optimal number of breaths a minute is 5 or 6!
The breath activates the autonomic system, which is responsible for both the fight-or-flight and the rest-and-digest responses. Each breath sends signals to our brain stem through millions of pathways. By breathing too quickly we are telling our brain stem that we are in danger. This activates our fight-or-flight response and, if you’ve read this article, you know what that means. Being in fight-or-flight for too long comes with negative consequences for every aspect of our health.
And that’s what we do to ourselves when we breathe sub-optimally.
Conscious Breathing – A Gateway To Peace
The way to recover our natural breath can be complicated if we don’t have the right guidance. It can be tough to unlearn the habit of improper breathing. I still haven’t done it, but I intend to do so as soon as I can. You can search for “holotropic breathing” if you’re interested in learning more.
But one of the simplest things we can all do to improve our breathing is to breathe consciously.
When I say “breathe consciously” I simply mean “watch your breath.” You can change your breath while you watch it if you want, but it’s not necessary. Just being conscious of our breath changes our state of being towards one of peaceful relaxation. By taking a few minutes throughout our days to focus on our breath, we activate physiological processes which promote our health and happiness.
Conscious breathing has been shown to provide a bundle of amazing mind-body benefits.
It has been shown to improve happiness and emotional stability. According to the journal Cognition and Emotion, manipulating the breath can alter how we feel, moving us between anger, fear, joy and sadness. According to the study, the best way to evoke feelings of joy is to breathe and exhale deeply and slowly through the nose.
It has also been linked to better exercise stamina, longer life and even weight loss.
When I start my mornings with a moving meditation, during which I breathe consciously, in harmony with my movement, my days are clear and effortless. All my work progresses smoothly and I can focus easily on what I want.
The breath is a tool we all have to improve every aspect of our life!
I Invite You To Breathe!
That’s it for this article! I hope it has opened your mind to the power of the breath. Many of us are living such stressful, distracted lives today, we need every tool we can get to manage the burgeoning complexities of the world.
We don’t need fancy, costly tools to improve our lives. In my experience, becoming aware of the power each of us has, be it over our thoughts, our movement, our habits of consumption, or our breath, is the most empowering choice we can all make.
So I invite you to learn more about the power your breath has over your state of being. I also invite you to take some time out of your day to pause and breathe consciously. I do it regularly and I am always grateful for the time I dedicate to doing it. I can’t imagine my life without the habit.
So are you going to start breathing consciously?
To our wealth and success.