A Matter of Life and Breath

“Without mastering breathing nothing can be mastered”
G.I. Gurdjieff

What exactly is breathing? According to dictionary.com it is ‘to take in air, oxygen, etc., into the lungs and expel it; inhale and exhale, respire’. It is one of the most natural of human functions, innate and instinctive. We take it for granted. Should we?

From the moment a baby leaves its mother’s womb and takes its first gasp of air, breathing is automatic. No one has taught the baby to breath, it just did. And watching a small baby as its belly rises and falls with each breath, assures us that diaphragmatic breathing is as natural to us as is the beating of our hearts. Yet by the time we reach our adult years, the vast majority of us have altered this natural process adopting an inverted breathing pattern that brings with it a multitude of problems.

Just what is diaphragmatic breathing? The thoracic diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits just under the lower ribcage and just above the abdominal wall. It is the major muscle of respiration. When working properly it draws the lungs downward to enable a deeper more beneficial breath. It also aids in expiration by performing a ‘braking’ action against the recoil of the lungs on the out breath. When correctly diaphragmatically breathing, the chest and the abdominal muscles are relaxed. A cascade of health benefits will result which, along with a greater abundance of blood-rich cells that are oxygenated in the lower lobes of the lungs to be sent throughout the body, includes a less stressed heart, reduced spinal compression, less tension in neck and shoulders – and much more.

Nor do the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing stop with physical reward. The breath is connected to our mental state as well. Who hasn’t breathed a sigh of relief at some stage in their life? Short fast breaths often come hand in hand with anger or stress. And we are all familiar with the benefits credited to the deep meditation breathing long practised by the yogis. It would be difficult to argue against the positive effect that natural diaphragmatic breathing has on our emotional and spiritual well-being.

So what happens from the time we leave the womb up to adulthood that alters this most ideal and most natural process? By the time the majority of us reach full adulthood, we will have adopted an inverted breathing pattern inducing a shallow breathing that reduces our respiratory system’s capacity to about a third of its capability. We become chest breathers. It would be difficult to point a finger. There are many, many factors that can affect each and every one of us throughout our lives that could be taken to blame. The boy too tall for his age; the girl that is early in her pubescent development; the shy personality; the very fact that almost everything we do is forward, i.e. studying at our desks at school, eating, driving, working on computers, and on and on … factors that all have an effect on the way we carry ourselves and result in our individual postural alignment that forces compensation in our bodily function. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that there is a major problem confronting most of us if we ever wish to achieve optimal health and good quality of life. That is, unless we retrain the body to breathe correctly, achievement of that optimal goal is not possible.

Although it may take more than a few lines to teach you how to breathe properly, try this. Sit upright on a firm support and lift the ribcage upwards while at the same time relaxing your shoulders. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Inhale and exhale through your nose while keeping the mouth closed and relaxed. Breathe slowly. Try to relax your chest and not to draw your belly inward. If you are breathing correctly, the hands will stay fairly still and the space between them around the ribcage should expand. It should feel like you are yawning through your nose. Keep practising and in time it will feel a little more natural.

While nutrition and exercise obviously play a vital role in our wellbeing, it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of the role diaphragmatic breathing plays in our level of health. It affects every aspect of our being. So to answer the opening question, “What exactly is breathing?” – I believe it is our greatest untapped power and it is within each of us just waiting to be mastered.

Siobhán O Reilly
C.H.E.K. Practitioner Level II
Neuromuscular Therapist
Health and Wellness Specialist

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