Breath is Life
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
by Anna DiMarco, Senior Physiotherapist
A baby enters this world and for the first moment of his fragile new life, we wait anxiously to see that he will in fact take his first breath. This breath symbolizes for us the baby's ability to sustain himself independently, outside of the sanctuary of the womb in which he was so miraculously created and so generously sustained. A father, unwell for months, lays calmly in his bed, surrounded by his grown children, his grandchildren, and a lifetime of memories housed in photographs and artifacts collected throughout his spectacular journey of 73 years. He has laid here for days now, barely moving and unresponsive to the world of family that lovingly surrounds him. His family waits, anxiously, hopefully and regrettably, for him to take his final breath so that he may leave the physical world and all its recent discomforts behind.
Life is defined as the time between our first and our final breaths. We have rightfully recognized the importance of the breath as transitional milestones that occur at the beginning of life and at the end of life, but we have failed to honour its significance in the many breaths we breathe between these boundaries. Perhaps we have failed to honour this basic physiological necessity of life because for the most part, it does not command our attention as it spontaneously arises without our intervention each and every day .
Newborn babies breathe with a fullness and efficiency, delivering life and vitality to their whole bodies and minds. Watch a baby breathe and you will see her belly rise up with each inhale and lower down with each exhale. Unfortunately, for many of us, as we make our way into adolescence and adulthood, burdened by vanity (keep that belly flat at all times !), emotional stress, physical pain and sedentary lifestyles, our breathing patterns become somewhat dysfunctional. We start to breathe with chronic inefficiency as we breathe rapidly and with shallow depth. We use secondary muscles to do the work of the mighty diaphragm, and we breathe through our mouths versus our noses. Furthermore, we often unconsciously hold our breath altogether. These inefficient breathing patterns may escape our conscious awareness , but they do not go unnoticed by our physical and emotional bodies and are not without significant consequences to our state of well being. The science is clear in supporting the long held notion that the manner in which we breathe has an effect on every system of the body. As well, breathing has a general effect on our sleep patterns, our memory system, our physical and mental energy and our ability to concentrate. Some, like Dr. Andrew Weil, might argue that breathing is the cornerstone of our well-being, and if an individual wanted to make one very profound change to improve his current condition, he only need to improve the manner in which he breathes.
Spontaneous, Automatic Breath
When we breathe without our conscious involvement, the process is governed by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS oversees vital functions of the body related to respiration, heart function , digestion and perspiration. The ANS has "two gears"....The Sympathetic Nervous System, which is our active, "fight or flight " gear, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is our relaxed, calm, steady gear, the "rest and digest" counterpart.
The average person breathes greater than 20,000 times per day, an average of 15 breaths per minute. At this rate of respiration, the Autonomic Nervous System perceives a "fight or flight" situation and therefore shifts into Sympathetic Nervous System dominance. As a result, our heart rate rises, blood pressure rises, vessels constrict, muscle tension increases and various "emergency" biochemicals are released into our system. Just imagine the physical and physiological response you would have to encountering a grizzly bear while out for a hike in Banff. This is not a physical, emotional or physiological state you would choose to keep yourself in for any extended period of time, yet it is exactly what you are doing when you are breathing ineffectively.
Dysfunctional breathing patterns require much more effort than normal, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing . Furthermore, we now recognize the potentially destructive capacity of habitual bad breathing as it negatively impacts physical, emotional and physiological processes. Dysfunctional breathing patterns have been linked to a myriad of health concerns including but not limited to increased infectious illnesses, increased pain experience, increased low back injuries, poor digestion and increased stress and anxiety disorders.
Conscious Breathing to Correct Dysfunctional Strategies...Awareness is the First Step
It is never easy to change our habits. However, awareness is always the first step towards positive change. You may assess your own breathing habits to see if a little conscious intervention is required to correct a poor breathing strategy.
1. Sit tall, at the edge of your seat, feet flat on the floor. Breathe as you normally would, without any conscious intervention or changes to your breathing style.
2. Count the number of breaths you take in one full minute.
3. Notice if you are inhaling through your nose or your mouth.
4. Place one hand on your upper chest, just below your collar bones, and the other hand at your belly. Inhale as you normally would. Does your upper hand rise? Does your hand at your belly rise? Exhale as you normally would. Does your belly rise or hollow on the exhale?
Examine your breathing pattern several times over the course of a few days. Notice if you have a consistent pattern. If you are breathing with your mouth, practice using your nose for the inhale. If you are breathing 15 or more times in one minute, try to inhale more deeply and exhale more slowly to decrease your frequency. If you are not feeling your belly rise on the inhale, you may want to try lying down on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. This may allow the diaphragm to move more easily. If your diaphragm remains "lazy", try challenging it by placing a heavy book on the belly. As you inhale, try to lift the book up evenly with your breath.
Changing a habit is never easy or quick, but restoring healthy breathing habits is critical for good physical and emotional health. Be patient with yourself and seek the guidance of a health care professional who is well versed in the area if necessary.
Breathe Well and Stay Strong !