August 8th, 2022
Photo: Andrea Piacquadio
“By changing the way in which you breathe you can actually change how your mind is processing thoughts and feelings and emotions.” James Nestor
Breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. It isn’t a voluntary action like drinking tea or playing the piano. It happens when we don’t think about it, when we sleep, even when we’re unconscious. Even if we never give it a thought throughout our life, we’ll still be breathing.
Yet, in so many ancient cultures, paying attention to our breathing, focusing on it, meditating with it and learning to control it in different ways was considered essential for health, mental stability and spiritual growth. How come? What’s the big deal about breathing?
The autonomic nervous system is in charge of a whole lot of processes that happen in our body subconsciously. Pupil dilation, salivation, digestion, heart rate, things like that. It regulates our hormonal balance, our immune system, our blood flow, our sleep cycles. There’s so much going on in our magnificent bodies that we can’t -and don’t want to- be aware of, because our mind would get overloaded in half a second and won’t be able to function.
All the components of this very complex system are interconnected. When we face danger, the sympathetic nervous system wakes up: our pupils and airways dilate, saliva and digestion are inhibited, glucose and adrenaline are released, etc. And oh, our breathing! It becomes faster to supply more oxygen to the muscles. When we are calm and at rest, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over: we digest, regenerate and heal, and our breathing calms down.
Breathing is part of that global system. We don’t want to spend precious mental resources on it as we move through our day. It happens, and should happen, automatically. Our nervous system registers the need for oxygen according to our activity and state of alertness, and changes our breathing accordingly.
There’s a little twist to breathing that sets it apart from all these other automatic processes: We can change it at will. Unlike all these body functions that are inaccessible to most of us normal humans, our breathing is easily accessible. I can breathe slower or faster at will. I can hold my breath for a little while. I can breathe through my nose or through my mouth. I can talk or sing.
This fact turns breathing into a precious tool. It’s a doorway to the whole autonomic system. It allows us to trace these nervous pathways backwards and influence our internal functions voluntarily. The parasympathetic nervous system calms down our breathing automatically, but it also works the other way around: If I calm down my breathing, I activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
By changing the way I breathe I can access the inaccessible inner workings of my body; I can affect my mood and my state of mind; I can take charge of the whole involuntary self-regulating mechanism. I can have a choice about how I feel, about my emotions, about the way I react to circumstances and people around me. I can take responsibility for my life and be in charge. This is huge, isn’t it?
It’s not that easy. It’s a practice, which means that it doesn’t work unless you practise it. It takes persistence and paying attention. We must develop the skill of awareness to be able to use this tool, because the automatic pilot is quick to impose itself when we’re not attentive, and then we find ourselves reacting the same way as always. Again.
But it is possible. Our ancestors knew what they were doing when they dedicated time and energy to get more awareness and control of their breathing. It is worth it, and it’s more necessary than ever these days, with chronic stress and anxiety on the rise. Our sympathetic nervous system is overworked, and our parasympathetic nervous system needs a serious boost.
Exhale… Don’t hurry. Make it last longer.
Call your attention to your breathing. When your mind jumps to past regrets or future worries, gently call it back. That is all. Come back to the present moment. Your breath is always in the here and now.
Do this, again and again, and it will change your life. Why do we do it so seldom?
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