In my classes we start working with our breath at a very young age. With older babies and young toddlers this is very simple, we blow scarves and smell flowers. These activities are just about becoming aware of the breath. Props like scarves work well as they allow children to actually see their breath. As children grow we start to think about how we can change our breath, breathing more or less deeply, more quickly or more slowly. At this stage we might blow pom poms across the mats, racing each other to the other side of the room, or work with a partner to keep a feather in the air for as long as possible. We can place a soft toy or a scarf on our tummies and watch them rise and fall with our breath, we can see how high we can make them lift and move them slowly or quickly. Soon we can move away from props and start becoming more abstract, introducing techniques to slow the breath and breathe more deeply such as finger breathing or fairy breath. But why? why is the breath so important?
In Indian Philosophy there is a story explaining the importance of the breath. It tells of how one day the eyes looked at a waterfall and said “I am the most important part of the body for without me you would not be able to see this waterfall”. This led to a quarrel as the various parts of the body claimed their own importance, all the while the breath stayed quiet. The mind decided to settle the quarrel with a test, the body would have to see how it coped without each part for a year. One by one, each part left and the body found it hard to cope but it managed. Eventually the mind left and with it all thoughts left the body, the body was unable to do anything, but it still lived. “There you have it,” said the mind, “I am the most important”, but everyone had forgotten the breath, which still remained quiet. So the breath decided it was her turn and slowly began to leave the body, the other parts of the body noticed very quickly and begged the breath to return. They all agreed that the breath was most important and from that day on the body had great respect for the breath and the extremely important role that she has.
Breathing is unique, it is the only physiological process that can be either voluntary or involuntary, and it therefore can be seen as key to understanding the link between mind and body. The connection and interactions between mind and body have been studied and questioned for many years. In the West our emphasis on Science has caused a difficulty with such studies as we are dealing with things that we cannot see, touch or examine. In Eastern philosophies a different view of mind and body is held. Yoga teaches that there is a level between mind and body, an intermediate layer of functioning so that the mind and body do not directly interact. This intermediate level has to do primarily with energy (prana). The mind alters the flow of the energy to affect the body and vice versa, and our breath is the vehicle for prana. In this way we can see the breath as key to our energies, our life force, it can give indications of our physical and mental states. And just as watching the breath can provide information about our physical and mental states, altering the breath can have a significant impact on our physical and mental states.
We’re often told to take a deep breath if we’re feeling stressed. Breathing deeply can reduce the heart rate, help us to relax, and decrease our anxiety levels, but why is that?
Infants and young children naturally breathe into their diaphragm. As we grow up, may of us start to breathe more shallowly, taking air only into the top of our lungs and using chest breathing rather than the deeper diaphragmatic breathing. Women in particular tend to shy away from breathing too deeply, especially after having children as we are constantly conscious of holding in our stomachs. Breathing deeply may make your tummy stick out, but I promise you it is worth it!
Shallow chest breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and can mean that we are functioning on a fight or flight response the majority of the time. When this system is governing the body your brain becomes flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol can be extremely useful (it means we can react quickly when we see our toddler precariously balanced on the edge of the kitchen worktop for example), however too much can be harmful. Elevated cortisol levels for prolonged periods of time can result in depression and heart disease, and can impact learning, memory and the immune system among others.
On the contrary, when we breathe from our diaphragm we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which tells the body to relax, rest and calm down. Studies have shown that levels of cortisol are much lower in people who practice slow breathing, suggesting that this breathing technique chemically reduces feelings of stress. This helps our ability to deal with everyday pressures and stresses, calms the mind, reduces anxiety and helps us to stay balanced.
This is why, when yoga baby number one practices her finger breathing at night it helps her to relax and drift closer to sleep. This is why, when I take time each day to practice my breathing, I am able to cope better with whatever the day brings, and I am a better mummy. So take a moment, take a breath, feel the air filling your lungs, take time each day to breathe.