oxygen - it's the ultimate elixir. But how we breathe can determine a great deal about our emotional, physical and spiritual wellness. Most inhale/exhale action is unconscious. To make sure we don't stop breathing, our bodies have left control of our air flow to the oldest part of the brain, which does its work regardless of what we're thinking or feeling.
But there are techniques that, with practice, allow us to mindfully use this natural reflex. Babies and sleeping adults tend to breathe deep into the belly , which rises and falls while the chest remains relatively still. We can consciously mimic this pattern in waking life in order to minimize anxiety and the fight-or flight reflex. We may also alleviate depression and pain. Deeper breathing also keeps us better oxygenated, which in itself is a destressor. The brain constantly monitors carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, and too little oxygen starts our adrenaline pumping.
When we stop ourselves from deep, full breathing, it's often because we're holding on to fear, anger or pain. Breathing "through" these feelings rather than clamping down our lungs by tightening our gut will help us come to resolution.
For intrepid explorers of the psyche, the next step is to use the breath to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. Sustained breathing using particular rhythmic and muscular patterns can dredge up our unconscious demons, allow us to confront what ails us deep down, and give us an entry point into mystic and visionary worlds. All this with no chemical side effects.
The one caution here is that you're best off exploring breath as a gateway to the self with the support and help of trusted friends or facilitators.
"Place your left hand on your belly below the waistline and your right hand on your chest. Whichever hand you feel is rising and falling most will indicate where you're breathing from. If your chest is rising and falling but your belly is moving little, the amount of air you need is not reaching your lungs. Once you have that body awareness, you can learn to drop the breath down by taking a deep inhale and allowing the belly to expand fully , like a balloon. It can be helpful to say to oneself, 'I am breathing deeply and fully' as a reminder. (Then) say, 'I let go of tension' to bring a thought or feeling of release through the exhale."
NAN KEYSER, relaxation/stress reduction consultant, psychotherapist
"Breathing more deeply, or belly breathing, is cleansing because you're circulating the residual breath that tends to sit in the bottom of the lungs. Better circulation means better health. To belly breathe, there are simple things to do like yawn, sigh, moan, groan, make sounds or laugh . You're circumventing the intellect, you're just breathing. Swallowing also helps. There's a neurological connection between swallowing and deeper breathing. Stretching a little bit or changing your position can help the breath drop lower. A simple shoulder stretch will do it. If you notice you're not breathing deeply, all you have to do is realize it , and that changes the situation immediately."
MONICA VOSS , certified yoga teacher, Toronto
"In Pilates work, we focus on breathing into the back and sides of the rib cage . We're trying to promote a three-dimensional breath pattern. We don't do belly breathing. We're trying to keep the abdominal wall not rigid but engaged. We do this so that as you go through the exercises you're not losing core stability. It's also a breath for fuelling efficiency. I think it's probably good to practise many different types of breathing, depending on the activity you're doing at the time. Certainly, belly breathing is good for relaxation purposes."
BETH EVANS , program director, Stott Pilates Education, Toronto
"Using the breath in a focused way enables people to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness. Such states bring us different types of information than the rational mind does; to not explore that is to limit our knowledge of our own human capacities. The actual mechanism is simple. One breathes faster and deeper than usual for a sustained period of time. Set and setting are important. Organizing therapeutic protected settings allows deeper experiences to happen in fully supported ways. This work allows people to discover what they're sad or anxious about that they don't (otherwise) have a handle on."
DONNA ROSENTHAL , certified holotropic breath worker, Tillsonburg
"Most illness is caused when people aren't breathing properly; illness cannot occur in a well-oxygenated body. We get somebody to consciously connect to their breath for a good solid hour. (In session) we breathe in high up in the chest, and we have a bigger breath going in than out. Tingly feelings will appear wherever there is a blockage in the body. If you just breathe, and let the energy that made you, help you, it knows what to do.' LYNNE JENKINS , RIHR, professional rebirther
Shallow breaths fuel stress - go deeper for wellness and mystic quests