Our breath is the crucial link between our mind and our body. It’s the only system in the body that works both consciously and unconsciously.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote this while on the battlefield around AD 170. He believed a clear mind allowed us to live in harmony with ‘logos’ — a sense of universal order. For some ancient philosophers, this harmony was divine, for others, a principle of order and knowledge. Either way I find it amusing that the word ‘logo’, which was part of my everyday life in advertising for many years, has its origins in philosophy and self-enquiry.
In our lives we find harmony, order and a clear mind all too elusive. On today’s commercial battlefields the enemies are more self-inflicted: stress, pressure, lack of sleep, an unhealthy diet, too much alcohol, too little rest … you know the score.
So when you arise in the morning you probably feel tired and irritable and the last thing on your mind is breathing and actually enjoying your life. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if that was different?
From our first to our last breath, we breathe in and out somewhere in the region of 600 million times. We take it for granted. It just happens, doesn’t it? What’s the big deal? We breathe in oxygen and we breathe out carbon dioxide. As my son said: ‘How are you going to write a whole book about that, Dad?’ However, there’s a lot more to the breath than that.
Our breath is the crucial link between our mind and our body. It’s the only system in the body that works both consciously and unconsciously. It affects how all our other internal systems work (digestion, the immune system, heart, nerves, brain etc.). It both reflects and influences whatever is going on at any given moment in our minds and bodies. Our breath is also our only constant companion on life’s journey. Worth knowing how to breathe better then?
Let’s start by looking at two important coping mechanisms that have evolved in the human body to help us deal with life’s challenges.
THE STRESS RESPONSE
Our bodies are designed to maintain balance. The medical term is ‘homeostasis’. So our bodies are always looking to maintain the right temperature, the right amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the right level of acidity and alkalinity, the right amount of sleep etc. Threats to this balance are called ‘stressors’ — like being attacked by an animal, or starving through lack of food. Our in-built ‘fight or flight’ response releases adrenaline and a myriad of other hormones to get us out of trouble. It evolved as a quick fix for extreme circumstances. However, our bodies are simply not designed to experience it too often. Yet nowadays, even the most mundane crisis like missing a train can trigger fight, flight or even a third possibility, freeze. We are chronically over-reacting to it and we are paying the price — heart disease, depression and obesity as well as wrecked jobs and ruined relationships. The World Health Organisation has called stress ‘the health epidemic of the twenty-first century’.
The Relaxation Response
Controlled deep breathing has been shown to produce the body’s ‘relaxation response’. As with the stress response, a number of hormones are released in the body; however, these hormones slow down our heart rate, relax muscles, calm our nerves and improve our immune system. It also creates the ideal conditions for digesting food well. And yet how often do we make stress worse by gobbling down a sandwich at our desks, causing indigestion and putting more pressure on our bodies?
Both of these responses work two ways: being stressed or relaxed affects how you breathe, and your breathing dictates how stressed or relaxed you feel. With better awareness of your breath you can more easily notice early signs of stress (shallow or faster breathing) and induce the relaxation response to stop it getting worse.
You may have noticed by now that sometimes I’m referring to the effects of breathing, stress and relaxation on the mind and sometimes on the body. In fact there is only one ‘bodymind’. Your body affects your mind and your mind affects your body. All too often, however, we listen to the neurotic ramblings of our mind and ignore the pleas of our bodies: ‘please rest, please move, please eat …’ Once we start to listen and pay attention to our minds, our bodies and our breathing, we can really start to build strong foundations for a better day, and a better life.
Adapted from Do Breathe: Calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done. by Michael Townsend Williams. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Townsend Williams. Published by The Do Book Co.