The Oxford English Dictionary defines breath as “the air received into and expelled from the lungs in the act of respiration. To draw breath: to inhale air, breathe, hence, to live…”
Breath is both voluntary and involuntary. It is usually an unconscious function, however, when brought to the forefront of consciousness we can change our breathing patterns to rapid or slow, shallow or deep. Deep breathing activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system which in turn inhibits the body’s fight or flight response that is induced by daily stressors. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve begins in the base of the brain and runs to the abdomen. It regulates the nervous system, controls the heart rate, and even affects the digestive tract.
I have never doubted the positive effects of deep breathing. Just like eating healthy affects every cell in our body, our breathing patterns directly correlate to the healthy functioning of all the systems in the body as well. In a society where making healthier choices is easier said than done, taking a small step like deep breathing every day is a free and effective way to improve health. On my personal path to health, I have changed my diet, exercise routines, even my finance and budgeting habits. However, every one of these steps, while crucial, is ultimately one more thing on my to do list: budget and meal plan on Sundays; cook and meal prep on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; work out on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Many of my strides toward health leave me feeling more overwhelmed than relieved. A few months ago, I was advised by my holistic health practitioner at Iron and Salt to start abdominal breathing a minimum of 10-20 minutes per day. I left the studio that night, not feeling like my coach had added something to my to do list, but rather like she had given me a pass to lock myself in a quiet room for 20 minutes every day and do nothing. I was relieved for this time out. My days, like everyone’s, are busy, and my mind usually races at night. However, after months of crawling into bed at night and doing abdominal breathing, I have noticed some significant changes.
After the first few weeks of meditating, I realized that my “monkey mind,” which usually frolicked about, was quiet. I was able to hold to my mantra: “I receive universal love, I give universal love.” There are still some wandering thoughts, but by repeating the mantra and imagining a golden light flowing down the front of me, swirling at the dan tien, then moving up my spine and out through the crown chakra, my focus has grown. The most drastic and fastest change I felt was that I am always nearly falling asleep by the end of the 20 minute meditation. I have always been restless before bed and, even in my states of heaviest exhaustion, have always taken at least an hour to fall asleep. Since I began deep breathing every night, that is rare. Now, I climb into bed, start my breathing, and I am lucky if I can stay awake until the end of the 20 minute session. Somewhere near the second month of regularly deep breathing, I also began to receive insight and clarity during my meditations. I have heard people say that they have been guided toward answers to life’s questions they were seeking. I have never felt divinely guided to solutions I seek. I can’t say I feel disconnected from spirit or universal guidance but answers have never come in clear messages to me. I have asked, listened, and been patient but when I did this I often felt alone and even more frustrated by the lack of answers flowing to me.
At 30, I am still waiting to discover what I am going to do with my life when I grow up. During one of my meditations, however, I contemplated things that I enjoy and am good at and ways that I can turn those abilities into success and vitality. In a moment, colors and answers began to flow through me. I felt and heard guidance. I cannot say if this was my spirit or my spiritual connection to something greater, but for the first time in my life, I believe I had quieted my mind enough to hear the words of guidance for which my soul had been waiting. This was a powerful experience; I realized through meditation that if we don’t have the direction we seek, it may not be because it is not there but rather that we have not stopped chattering long enough to hear it.
For many of us, there are so many things about our lives and bodies that we feel we cannot control. In reality though, sometimes changing a few simple daily habits can bring many things back into balance. The routine of daily deep breathing can regulate the heart rate and the digestive system, detoxify the body, reduce stress, soothe sore muscles and tension, ease the mind, and make the stressors of daily life easier to cope with. It does not require a gym membership or any start up fees. Simply lie down, place one hand on the belly and the other on the chest. Inhale deeply and slowly into the belly, then slowly exhale letting the belly fall. The health benefits are astronomical and the relief widespread. Learning to breathe properly and bring this bodily function back into a conscious process balances the mind, body, and spirit and reconnects us with our life force. A conscious life on this earth starts and stops with breath. Harnessing it properly is one of the easiest things to do on a journey toward greater health and higher consciousness. – Jennifer Walker