Take a Deep Breath
Once you manage to get the air past our tiny, deformed blocked up nostrils (see previous article) it’s beneficial to take it deep in to our lungs. The most obvious function of the lungs, the transference of oxygen and carbon dioxide between our bodies and the outside world, clearly gives us the energy to live. However, what is less known, is that breathing is also a power switch to a vast network known as the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is split in to two opposing parts. The first part, known as the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulates relaxation and restoration. It is the tranquil buzz that you may feel after a long massage or a good meal. The parasympathetic nervous system sends messages to the brain to release feel-good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin into your bloodstream. The lower lobes of the lungs contain more nerves connecting to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is one reason why long, slow and deep breathes are so relaxing.
The second part of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic, has the opposite effect. It sends stimulating signals to our organs and muscles telling them to get ready for action. A great density of the nerves to this system are situated at the top of the lungs. This is often known as the ‘fight or flight’ system, where heart rate increases, adrenaline is released and the body is primed for a short burst of energy to get us out of danger. Short, hasty breaths switch on this system, a system which is very quick to kick in but can take some time to deactivate.
Unfortunately most of us that have evolved to be mouth-breathers, also seem to be shallow-breathers as well. It certainly didn’t start out this way, as if you look at any baby or a young child you will notice that their abdomen rises and falls with each breath. This is because they are using their diaphragm to breathe. This is the natural, most efficient way of breathing but it seems as we get older we use the diaphragm less and less, engaging the inter-costal muscles instead which results in a much shallower breath. This in turn means we spend more time in the sympathetic nervous state.
The diaphragm itself is a large muscle that sits below our lungs and stretches all across the body, dividing the lungs from the digestive organs. When we breathe deeply we utilise the diaphragm which also has the benefit of massaging and stimulating the digestive system beneath.
From a Chinese medicine perspective diaphragmatic breathing is of even more importance, as it also has large effect on our emotional and energetic bodies. Its physical location means that it can be seen as a doorway between the two parts of our thoracic cavity and as such helps to regulate the ascending and descending of Qi, blood and fluids to the various organs. Furthermore all fourteen of the body’s main meridians pass through the diaphragm at some point and it acts as a pump that drives energy throughout the entire body. On a more emotional level it is seen as a kind of bridge between the conscious and the unconscious and is often a place where emotional tensions or grief can get stuck. Breathing is the only bodily function that carries on unconsciously, without us having to think about it, but one that we can also take control of consciously. It is for this reason that the diaphragm is seen as a gateway between the two.
There are many breathing techniques both ancient and modern that aim to help us to deepen our breath and to encourage all of the consequential health benefits. In Daoist practices it is known as abdominal breathing where the breath is drawn right down in to the lower Dan Tian energy centre beneath the navel.
Should you wish to learn more about this subject and maybe put it in to practice, I can highly recommend this short video made by my one of my teachers Damo Mitchell entitled ‘Anchoring the breath’.