The breath is the link between body and mind because the way we breathe directly reflects our mental and emotional state.
When in a state of panic, for example, we breathe with the top of the chest, visibly gasping for air. On the other hand, when depressed, our breath can be shallow with substantial periods of stillness with no breathing at all. Different ways of breathing use different muscles. When anxious, excited or busy, we naturally breathe using chest and shoulder muscles. If this is prolonged it can create a tight neck and back. But, when deeply relaxed, we breathe predominantly with the diaphragm with our abdomen moving in and out and our chest remaining still and relaxed.
Fortunately, the relationship runs both ways. We can induce relaxation through diaphragmatic breathing.
But so what? Why is this kind of deep relaxation good for us?
Our bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, and immune activity are controlled by a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and this has two modes. ‘Fight or Flight’ mode is designed to prepare us for action taking the focus away from non-emergency processes such as digestion and fighting disease. ‘Rest and Recuperation’ mode, on the other hand, is designed to kick in between emergencies and allows digestion and immunity to function once more. If we never fully relax, we never allow the body to drop back into Rest and Recuperation mode and unfortunately a stressed person does not necessarily fully relax even when asleep.
The thing about Belly Breathing is that by stimulating the vagus nerve running deep into the belly, the ANS switches from Fight or flight to Rest and Recuperation mode. This allows our immune system to focus on long term health problems rather than short term damage and our digestion to work optimally.
The way we breathe also influences the acidity of our blood. Improving our breathing pattern can reduce acidity and thereby help reduce the severity of a range of inflammatory conditions.
Technique (min 20 mins per day):
Lay on your back with knees slightly bent. Let your belly go up when you breathe in and down when you breathe out. Check that your chest is NOT moving as well. For this exercise we want no movement in the upper chest.
After a few minutes, check that both inhale and exhale are soft, smooth and long. Make sure you are breathing OUT fully. See if you can make the inhale and exhales change over slowly, smoothly from one to the other, i.e., there is no gasping or holding of breath.
Belly Breathing should feel like a wave gently rising and falling. It will be quiet, unforced, and smooth. We want the in and out breath to be the same length and intensity.
As your practise develops, your belly breath will get longer and smoother.
Cindy Engel offers classes in Qigong at the Harmony Centre