The Breath – What’s It all About?
Updated: May 5, 2022
The breath, our constant connection to the world outside, might be the single most important factor to our health and well-being. I know that’s a bold statement, but consider that without the breath, our life ceases to exist. The breath is a necessity, but it’s also a tool with powerful health-enhancing effects. By simply paying attention to our breath and breathing patterns, we can start to realize these benefits.
Given that the average person takes around 17,000 – 23,000 breaths every day, it’s quite likely that you breathe without giving much thought to it. And that’s okay. Paying attention to every single breath might not leave room for much else. But what if you paid attention to your breath for a few minutes each day? You might start to see a shift in your physical and mental health, your cognition, your outlook on life, and even your performance. Studies have shown these improvements following the uptake of various breathwork practices. But how does breathwork elicit these benefits?
There are two aspects of breathing we should focus on to establish support for regular breathwork practice. The first is how the breath enters the body. Does your breath typically come in from your nose or your mouth? The answer could implicate your overall health status.
When we breathe through our noses, we breathe in the way nature intended. The design of the nose enhances the quality of air flowing into the body. Specifically, the nose filters out foreign particles from the air such as dust or allergens, it humidifies the air by warming and moisturizing it to the point most optimal for the lungs, and it produces nitric oxide, which helps the blood vessels widen (vasodilation) in turn allowing for better oxygen and nutrient circulation throughout the body. The mouth does none of these things when it takes in a breath. In fact, many negative health consequences such as allergies, asthma, tooth decay, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea are associated with mouth breathing. Nasal breathing brings many benefits, including a slower rate of breathing (more to come on this), a stronger diaphragm, a healthier immune system, and even a calmer mind. This leads us to the second aspect of breathing – where the breath goes after it enters.
Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing:
What is diaphragmatic or belly breathing? Belly breathing is a type of breathing that involves drawing the breath into the diaphragm – the large, dome-shaped muscle chiefly responsible for respiration. Diaphragmatic breathing is the basis for most breathwork practices; it simply involves taking deeper breaths that expand the belly. This type of breathing is known for its stress-reducing effects and is why it’s employed in many meditation practices. It can help lower our heart rate and blood pressure, develop a stronger core, tolerate higher levels of exercise and other stressors, and help improve the efficiency of our metabolism. How does breathing into the belly produce these benefits? The answer is simple yet quite complex – it shifts the balance of our autonomic nervous system.
The Autonomic Nervous System:
Briefly (certainly not comprehensively), the autonomic nervous system is divided into three parts: the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and the enteric. For our purposes, we will focus on the first two. A very simplified distinction between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is that the SNS is responsible for our flight or fight mode, and the PNS governs our rest and digest (or feed and breed) mode. With that said, our SNS raises our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate while our PNS lowers these and allows for digestion. So how does this fit in with belly breathing? Belly breathing activates the diaphragm, stimulating the vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve:
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that spans much of the body, interfacing with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive system. The vagus nerve is well-suited for relaying relaxation to the body, helping to balance our arousal levels and shift us toward the PNS mode – a calmer, more relaxed state. In contrast to slow, deep breathing, rapid, shallow breathing (chest breathing) activates the SNS, and it can increase arousal to an excessive degree, leading to high energy states such as stress and anxiety, which we know to be harmful to health. Okay, where do we go from here?
Bringing it All Together:
So, we’ve established the importance of how the breath enters the body and where it goes upon entry. Let’s take a quick recap – breathing through the nose, as opposed to breathing through the mouth, increases the quality of airflow into the body, and breathing slower and more deeply (into the belly) helps create a more relaxed physical and mental state. Pairing these two together creates a potent elixir for better health and well-being. But what do we do with this information?
We can start by paying attention to how we breathe and practice breathing through our noses whenever possible. We can also make it a habit to sit quietly for a few moments every day to focus on breathing slower and deeper and pay attention to the sensations of the air flowing in through the nose and its gentle expansion of the belly. These are a few simple ways to start taking control of the power of the breath. Stay tuned for specific examples of breathwork practices that we regularly use at KRMA Fitness.
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397