by Marian Thornley

In past articles, I have talked about stress, some ways in which it can manifest itself in the body and some physical movements we can make to counteract the tensions that build up in the muscles. One of the major tools to deal with this problem in the yoga toolbox is the use of breathing techniques.

I find that a majority of people have little idea of how they breathe or why they should give their breathing a second thought.

After all, its something that happens automatically isn’t it? Yes, it is, yet it is also under our voluntary control; thus, breathing well is one of the most powerful ways we have of ensuring our own good health.

Breathing is a complex process and our bodies have evolved to allow us different mechanisms of drawing breath to suit the situation we are in.

For example, when we are in a stressful or dangerous situation we breathe shallowly and quickly into the ribcage – this helps the body pump lots of oxygen to the muscles to allow us to either run from, or fight the danger.

This has become a problem in the modern world, as the stresses we are all under no longer permit the “flight or fight” response – we are not allowed to punch the boss on the nose when he is unreasonable!

Consequently, many of us under stressors such as work or relationships, continue to breathe in this way in the long term, and this can cause a frightening list of diseases, including depression, heart disease and many, many more.

The good news is that bad breathing habits are reversible. Various scientific studies have linked good breathing practices with the alleviation of migraines, high blood pressure, asthma, panic attacks and chronic pain. Someone who breathes well also tends to be centred and less vulnerable to life’s ups and downs.

The first step towards realising these benefits is to develop an awareness of your own breath pattern. To do this, sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and unsupported, your belly free to move and your shoulders and arms relaxed. Close your eyes and focus your attention on the breath.

As you tune in to your own natural breathing pattern, ask yourself the following questions. Allow a few minutes for each enquiry.

  • What parts of the body are moving with your breath?
  • What is the quality of the breath? Is it smooth, even, long, flowing, rough or agitated?
  • Where in the body do you feel the breath start, and where does it finish?

Just spending some time on these enquiries may help your breath to return to a more healthy pattern, or it may show you how out of kilter your breath has become. More on breathing next time!

Marian is a qualified yoga teacher, although she is not currently teaching.  She is particularly interested in the use of yoga as a tool for health and healing.

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