Mindfulness and the power of breathing

Mindfulness fully rests on the power of breathing. However, breathing and its benefits rarely are in the spotlight. This article will add more focus and explanation around it.

Let’s start by the most common position to practice mindfulness: seated in a chair. We usually are asked to find a way to sit where you can be relaxed and alert at the same time. An invitation comes to experiment by not leaning back on the chair. Perhaps arching your back slightly, noticing your hands, noticing your feet. The instructions end by inviting you to find a way that works for you. The goal here is to get our body adopt a J-shape and explore different than the most common S-shape. Our bodies and our airways are designed to work best in this J-shape posture. A full alignment happens from nose to diaphragm, opening the body for a better breathing.

Then, we are usually invited to close our eyes and begin by bringing attention to the breath. “Let’s all take a few deep breaths”. Sometimes, the guiding person opens for an exploration of the breathing itself. “With your attention, can you follow one complete cycle of breath?”. Eventually, the invitation deepens and focuses on “the moment the in breath begins, how it continues, the moment it ends; the moment the out-breath begins, how it continues, the moment it ends”. And we come back to breathing once and again at different times and with different words. Breathing is at the center of any mindfulness practice as it is at the center of all other meditation practices.

But are there ways to breathe better? The quick answer is yes, there are. The longer answers come from the book “Breath. The new science of a lost art” by author James Nestor. Science advises the following: breath slow, less, through the nose, with longer exhales and, when possible, breathholding between breath-in and breath-out. When it comes to time, the perfect breath is 5.5 seconds breath-in followed by a 5.5 seconds breath out. Of course, these are orientations, not rules. There are plenty of variations. The key is to find a rhythm that better works for you.

Nevertheless, the intention is to practice breathing in a way that our regular, day-to-day breathing aligns better with the following recommendations:

Shut-your-mouth and breath through the nose

When mouth breathing, the air enters the mouth unfiltered, unmoistened and unheated. This creates all kinds of problems: increases mouth diseases (periodontal, bad breath and cavities); irritates the throat; damages the lungs (as they become like an external, fully exposed organ); worsens sleeping (snoring and sleep apnea); weakens the body (as it receives less oxygen and experiences strong difficulties to sleep); and robs the nose of its functioning.

When nose breathing, the air gets heated, cleaned, moistened, and pressurized and reaches the lungs slowly. This brings all types of benefits: activates the nostrils (which are the gas pedal and the brake of the autonomous nervous system, balancing it); opens sinuses to the release the chemicals that increase circulation and the delivery of oxygen to the cells (which positively impacts the immune system, the weight, the mood, and the sexual function); and prevents lung diseases.

The nose, as James Nestor indicates, is the gatekeeper of the body and the pharmacist for the mind. In other words, the nose is the silent warrior of the body and the weathervane to our emotions.

Breath slow and allow for longer exhales

Different researchers have concluded that lung capacity is the greatest indicator of life span. The key contributor is on the transformation power of full exhalation and slower, full-breath breathing. Science targets to the diaphragm and the thoracic pump for such outstanding benefit of a longer life. The diaphragm lifts during exhalation and drops back down during inhalation. This powers the thoracic pump, widely considered as “the second heart”, which builds pressure inside the chest when we exhale, contributing to the speed and strength of the blood circulation (helping and relieving the heart). Logically, it builds pressure also to all the organs when we inhale, contributing to their cleaning and detoxification.

Additionally, deeper, soft breaths in and longer exhales activate the lower lobes of the lung, which happen to be another key for the calm and relaxation system of the body: the parasympathetic nervous system.

Breathholding consciously

When breathholding at will, may it be between breath-in and breath-out or in any other breathing technique (like pranayama), our body gets trained to increase the tolerance level to carbon dioxide. By doing so, we lower the sensitivity of our most primitive alarm system for fear: the chemoreceptors. These neurons control breathing and trigger when there is the feeling of not being able to take another breath. Building chemoreceptors flexibility is a key condition to stay calm and return to calm, especially when there are fear-related disorders or when there are conditions which overload us with carbon dioxide.

Taking care of breathing by using specific techniques has been around for thousands of years. Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Christianism are traditions which helped people to learn how to breath and to breath better. Pray was a key element of it. When analyzed, researchers have found very specific and common breathing patterns among popular prays and rituals. The perfect breath pattern (5.5 seconds breath-in followed by a 5.5 seconds breath out) is shared by Om Hani Padme Hum, Sa Ta Na Ma and the Ave María (original Latin version).

Nowadays, this same pattern is labeled as “coherence breathing” by scientists. I personally like the HeartMath Institute commitment to it. By breathing like this, blood flows to the brain increases and the systems of the body enter a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, nervous system, and circulation are coordinated at peak efficiency.

As James Nestor says “when it comes time to breathing through the nose and slow down your breathing, you just simply breath through the nose and slow down your breathing“.

So you already know that mindfulness helps you also to practice a better breathing.

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