Daffodils take my breath away! In a good way, though. Where I live, it’s the sweet scent of a hillside full of those yellow and white beauties that announces the arrival of spring, for real. Daffodils stop me in my tracks and invite me gaze at their glory with a long, luxurious breath.
Before this past week, when great clusters of green shafts opened their swollen buds into buttery bursts of yellow and white flowers, I have never thought about daffodils and breathing together. But after the past 12 months, my perspective has changed about all sorts of things that I used to take for granted.
Have you ever taken your ability to breathe for granted? I certainly have, and during 2020 my lack of attention to the privilege and absolute necessity of proper breath was shaken hard.
First of course, by the widely-publicized tragic killings of too many black men and women, who lost their vital respiratory ability to the brute force of systemic racism, bullets, a knee, other abused implements of power.
I was also drawn to the essential function of respiration because of health issues I’ve been coping with related to compromised breathing.
Coincidentally, around the same time a sibling lent me a fascinating book called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor. Mr. Nestor, as well as other scientific journalists, opened my eyes to some startling facts about the power of the breath that is so fundamental to life.
There is an impressive amount of compelling information about breath showing up in the health arena these days that I’m finding worthwhile. As a starting point, I’ve decided to focus this post on three of the breath-related truths that I think are especially important to share.
1). Breathing, it turns out, is often a missing pillar of health.
Breath is a “tool,” an innate one that you take with you everywhere you go. You can use it mindfully to calm stress and anxiety and to optimize your health. Or, if you’re like me and many others, you can take breathing for granted and unwittingly let poor breathing habits interfere with your wellness.
When we experience stress, many of us tend to hold our bellies in, which keeps our breath shallow and primarily in the chest. That’s definitely true for me! I hardly breathe at all when I’m up-tight about something. Do you?
Science has illustrated that shallow breathing triggers a stress response, shutting down your body’s ability to relax and recover and interfering with your ability to digest, sleep properly, and perform a myriad of other essential functions. It’s a circular stress-induced-stress-response loop.
One way to interrupt that self-perpetuating cycle is by regulating your central nervous system with long, slow, expansive belly breaths that end with a contracted abdomen. Apparently, such an expansion-contraction motion serves as a “pump” for lymphatic and vascular fluids, which are important for detoxification, circulation, and neurological wellbeing.
2) While it may be obvious that breath is essential for life, less apparent is that how one breathes can make the difference between health and disease.
Full vs. shallow ~ For example, as just mentioned above, long, slow, full breaths into your belly can calm your central nervous system. The basic belly breath, or three-part breath taught in many yoga classes, is a great way to access this sort of calming effect.
Conversely, short, rapid, shallow chest breathing triggers a stress response in the nervous system. This happens when some sort of threat instigates fear. Or even when you’re absorbed deeply in reading and responding to emails, which can result in a sort of “email apnea.”
Sound familiar? I’ve certainly found myself hardly breathing while going through my Inbox! Any time we exert continuous partial attention to what we’re doing, the result is likely to be shallow, partial breaths.
Nose vs. mouth ~ Another important consideration for how you breathe is whether you tend to use your nose or your mouth.
Nose breathing improves breathing capacity by toning tissues and muscles in the mouth and throat. Nasal breathing also cleans, heats, and moistens the air breathed, and triggers the release of hormones and chemicals that help with the body’s major functions.
Historically, Native Americans wisely understood the importance of nasal breathing. For centuries they trained their infants, in papooses hung up on trees, to breathe through their noses so that they’d grow strong, healthy, and beautiful in their facial structure.
By contrast, breathing predominantly through the mouth constricts a person’s facial structure and airways, making proper breath more difficult, reducing oxygen intake, and increasing water loss.
Breath length ~ Apparently, there is a universally acknowledged, best breath duration. According to Mr. Nestor, the perfect breathing pattern is 5.5 breaths per minute, with each inhale of about 5.5 seconds and each exhale also 5.5 seconds long. That’s significantly slower than most of us are in the habit of taking a breath.
Nestor reports that historically, every major religion in the world has featured a form of prayer or chant that lasts approximately 5.5 seconds long. Maybe we’re actually finding our way back to some of the ancient wisdom we have lost!
What does this all mean for you?
3) It means that if you, like me, have developed some breathing habits that don’t serve you well, it’s never too late to start altering the way you breathe, to make your breath more restorative so that you may in turn improve your overall health and wellbeing! Even 5 minutes a day can make a difference.
You can begin by paying attention to how you breathe during the day. Stop and notice periodically. Do you favor your mouth or your nose? If you’re eager to try a breath exercise, you can start by inhaling slowly through your nose and diaphragm down into your belly. Feel your abdomen and then your ribs expand with air. Finally, exhale for at least as long as you inhaled.
Do that 3-5 times, 3-5 times per day. During transition periods, such as when you wake up or get into bed or before each meal, would be great times to bring in this type of breath. Try it, you might be pleasantly surprised by the shift that long, slow breathing enables.
Also, the next time you’re outside, look for daffodils and other early spring treasures. When you find them, remember to pause for a long, luxurious and grateful breath.
In my next blog post I’ll focus more specifically on the benefits of nasal breathing and why that matters for your health. I’ll also offer some effective tips for how to make the switch from relying on your mouth to using your nose.
If you have questions or comments about this post, or would like to discuss how to find the right holistic health and nutrition support for you at this time, please send me an email through my Contact page.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor
Dr. Michael Ruscio, Radio Podcast Interview with Dr. Erick Peper, October ’20
“Breathing for Health” Masterclass, Jane Hogan
15-Minute Matrix Podcast Maps Breath with Allison Post, Functional Nutrition Alliance