This morning I lay in bed not quite ready to get up and meet the day. As I watched the sun rise, I notice the rise and fall of my breath.
I am always amazed at the complexity of breath – of all the stories it tells about where I am in the moment and intricate layers of where I have been.
It’s a funny thing, breath. We don’t usually give it much thought – it’s automatic right? I mean that’s the whole point, it’s automatic so we don’t have to think about it because we humans are distractible and if our breath relied on us paying attention to it. Well let’s just say, our species would be short lived. The thing is, it’s not quite that simple. Of course, we breathe enough to be alive but the breath is actually a complex multi layered thing. It can tell us so much about ourselves and, more importantly, help shape, calm and regulate our nervous system.
In the yoga tradition – this is old news. I mean REALLY old! For thousands of year’s yogis have been using their breath to build prana (life force), purify their bodies, clear their minds, and move them towards self-realization. There are countless books dedicated to the subject and …… techniques to shape the breath.
As a yoga therapist, breath is almost as fascinating to me as the brain! In a group, I find myself watching peoples breath as they speak. All my individual intake sessions include a breath assessment and it tells me a lot about a person. It gives me a sense for whether or not they tend toward anxiety, depression, or irritability when stressed. It shows me a bit about where they hold themselves back, and how they show up in the world, as well as how safe they have experienced the world.
I imagine right now you might be saying to yourself, “You are kidding, right? All that from watching me breathe?” Well, yes actually, and more. We could go into greater detail but it’s really fairly simple. Think about when something happens, what is the first thing you do? We take a sharp inhale of breath and a holding in… right? This is part of our body’s signal to the brain to get alert and scan for danger. If the surprise is a good one, we will most likely exhale through the mouth (phew style) and may even laugh or chuckle all signaling the “false alarm” stand down message to the brain so our amygdala doesn’t fire and initiate our fight or flight system. If, on the other hand, the surprise is not a good one, our breath will get fast and shallow, and the whole cascade of fight or flight will be initiated. This dance between breath, brain, and sensation all happens in just a few milliseconds and usually without our awareness or participation.
Here is the super cool amazing part…we can use our attention and awareness on breath to change these patterns within ourselves! By doing this we can change our experience of the moment and eventually change our nervous systems and our brains.
Seriously, this stuff is amazing! Now why don’t they teach us this in kindergarten? I mean middle school would be waaay easier! But, I digress.
One of the interesting things about the neurology of breath is that there are different brain centers for different kinds of breath. More specifically, metabolic breathing (that automatic thing we do to stay alive) is centered in the limbic system, whereas behavioral breathing is centered in the cerebral cortex. As one research paper describes it:
“respiratory chest wall movement is performed by the intermittent contraction of inspiratory and expiratory muscles. Motor commands for the contraction of these muscles are generated in complex neuronal networks in the brain. Various afferent inputs are integrated to produce respiratory rhythm and tidal activity, primarily in response to metabolic demands… however, respiratory motor output is also influenced by internal and external environmental change”
Whew! I love those fancy filters…. In other words, what you feel, see, and smell affects how you breathe and is regulated in a different part of your brain than automatic breathing.
What does this all mean? Luckily, for us as humans, we have some hardwiring that allows us to take control of our breath and use it to influence the lower, more primitive and automatic part of our brain. When we can calm ourselves, we can have a more reasoned response, shortening the time we have to experience the yucky (yes, that’s is a technical term) sensations of fear, shame, anger, etc.…
How do we do this magic trick? Curiosity and awareness.
Invariably, with almost all of my new clients, part of their weekly homework (or weekly invitation for reflection as I sometimes reframe for those who hate the word homework) is to be curious about their breath, just notice. Notice when you breathe, and notice as many details about the quality of your breath – smooth/bumpy, shallow/deep, rapid/slow – and then ask yourself where in your body it show up? Does your belly move or, is it only in your upper chest? Do you hold your breath in or out? Does it change throughout the day or depending on who you are with? This exploration into breath is so simple but always yields new awareness’s. Clients almost always return to say “I didn’t realize it but…. I hold my breath, or I breath really shallow when I am stressed…” etc.
When is the last time you paid attention to your breath? Try it and let me know what you find!