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The Breath of Life

Focusing on the breath helps a great deal to prepare the mind, body and soul for meditation. When we state our intention to meditate and focus on our breath, it trains the mind to be still, the body to relax and for the soul to be aware of our intention and to connect.

Saint Hesychios (8th century) described the practice of watchfulness and then linked it to breathing: “Every monk will be uncertain about his spiritual work until he has achieved watchfulness. Watchfulness is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect… With your breathing combine watchfulness”.

If you practise yoga, you will be aware of the term Pranayama and it’s worthy of note that on 10 May 2018 Science News headlines “The Yogi masters were right – meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind” they further explain “It has long been claimed by Yogis and Buddhists that meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, strengthen our ability to focus on tasks. A new study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.

Our breath is essential for our survival and breathing in Oxygen and breathing out Carbon Dioxide is a natural process that tends to have little input from us. However, the way we breathe air into our bodies is really important and a process for which we should be both aware and mindful. We need to help our lungs function to their full capacity, but if the part we play is only 50%, our lungs can only perform to 50%.

Breathe life back into your body

Take a moment to be aware (to watch) whether you breathe air in through your nose or your mouth. When we inhale through the nose it is filtered, warmed and moistened before it gets to our lungs, but if we breathe through our mouths, bacteria can enter the lungs direct, as there is no filtering process and the lungs have to work that little bit harder. If you notice that you are breathing in through your mouth, try to change this habit and breathe through your nose whenever you can.

Our lungs have separate sections called lobes. The right lung has three lobes, the upper middle and lower and the left lung being slightly smaller due to the location of the heart, has two, an upper and a lower. The lower lobes contain small blood vessels that transport oxygen to the cells, so when your breathing is shallow and in stressful situations also rapid, rather than your lungs breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide with a healthy balance, rapid and shallow breathing feeds oxygen into just the upper part of the lungs, where it is then quickly expelled. If this condition continues for too long, you can start to hyperventilate, which in severe cases can lead to loss of consciousness, or more commonly, a panic attack. Long term, it can lead to heart disease, intestinal disorders and asthma, to name just a few.

NB You may have heard in the past that if someone is hyperventilating, you encourage them to breathe into a paper bag to increase carbon dioxide levels. A quick note at this point that there have been a number of cases where rather than hyperventilating, the “casualties” were having heart attacks and in such cases, reducing oxygen and increasing carbon dioxide could have serious consequences, so breathing into a paper bag is no longer encouraged.

Breathing techniques

Before you read on, take a moment to be aware of how you are breathing. Are you breathing from the top part of your lungs, or the lower? Are they shallow, fast, short breaths, or deep, calm and long, or somewhere in-between?

With both yoga and meditation, you are guided to breathe slowly and deeply using your diaphragm. Slow diaphragmatic breathing lowers blood pressure and heart rate naturally, decreasing stress levels, increasing stamina and an overall feeling of wellbeing.

If it isn’t normal practice for you to breathe from your diaphragm and more natural for you to take shallow breaths, although Saint Hesychio’s advice dates back to the 18th Century, it is perhaps even more relevant in the 21st Century with our fast pace of life, to be “watchful” of your breath.

It may take time to change a habit of a life-time. How to breathe isn’t something we learn at school, but great to note that Science is finally catching up with the ancient yogis!

This exercise might help to get you started:

Breathe from as low a place as you possibly can and place your hands where your diaphragm rises and falls. Don’t be concerned that your “belly” is expanding – this exercise will tighten your tummy muscles and give them a good work out! Don’t force your breath, simply breathe through your nose slowly and calmly and balance the in-breath with your out-breath. (Breathing out through the nose slows exhalation down and gives the lungs more time to use the oxygen it has taken in.) Be watchful of your hands – feel the sensation of them rising and falling on your diaphragm - if you find yourself in a stressful situation in the future, you can call on that sensation to calm yourself down. It might also help to count to four with the in-breath, hold it for a count of 4, then exhale to a count of 4 and pause for a count of 4 to empty your lungs completely. Don’t be concerned if you can’t manage a count of 4 though – start at a point where it’s comfortable and increase when you feel able. A good time to practise would be for 10 minutes before you go to bed and 10 minutes when you get up, but just being aware of your breath would be a great place to start.

I do hope you have found this article useful and please do leave feedback if you have any experiences on this subject you would like to share.

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