Hey fam! Our Editorial Director, Ashley, is back today with some educational info on how our bodies respond to breathing practices. We hear a lot about moving with breath in yoga classes, but it helps to know what’s actually happening when we focus on the inhale/exhale. Ashley is teaching a weekend of workshops at Namaslay® Studios in July and will join our Tennessee Namaslay® YTT in August (there’s still time to sign up!), so be sure to ask any questions in the comments and come learn with us soon! xo- Candace
Let’s start with a story: Cheryl wakes up 30 minutes past her alarm clock and trips over her husband’s dirty laundry on the way to the bathroom door. She spills coffee on her shirt and gets mascara in her eye before she heads to her car, and in her haste to get to the office on time is pulled over for speeding.
By the time Cheryl makes it to the office, she’s got a migraine. Because her first meeting starts in 10 minutes, she scarfs her breakfast and moves right into the conference room. Pam, who’s been eyeing Cheryl’s position for a while now, sits across from her ready to step in with any “helpful” additions to Cheryl’s presentation and occasionally offers a conspicuous cough and eyebrow raise.
When the meeting ends, Cheryl’s stomach is in knots from the stress (and because she’s been sucking it in for a flat belly all morning), not to mention she hasn’t had a moment for regularity yet today. Now, here comes Pete, apologizing because he missed the deadline she was clear could not wait.
Poor Pete. Cheryl loses it. She makes Pete feel small with her words, calls him incompetent and sends him home for the day. Everyone in the office saw her grave lack of professionalism, and now she’s ready to crawl outside her own skin as she runs for the door.
Cheryl’s body started the day in panic mode, and she never hit the reset button. She never found the space to calm her nervous system and communicate that she was safe, so as the day went on, her shallow breathing caused tension in her neck and shoulders, which led to a headache. Her rushed schedule gave her no time to breathe and chew her food, disrupting her digestive process, and ultimately her lack of mental clarity gave her over to impulsive reactions. Poor Pete didn’t stand a chance. We’ve all been in Cheryl’s shoes.
Over time, thanks to environmental stressors and social pressures to look trim, we’ve lost the instinct to breathe slowly, deeply and fully. It starts in the brain; as we perceive a threat, the brain communicates to the body to direct all its energies to survival mode. If we’re not practiced in taking slow, mindful belly breaths in times of stress, we take in shorter sips of air through the mouth using the neck and shoulders. Long term shallow breathing can have a serious impact on our health by disrupting our immune and digestive systems, taxing the cardiovascular system and increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke, and opening us up to injury by relying on the tiny muscles of the neck, shoulders and chest (scalenes and intercostals) to do the job meant for the diaphragm. There are even recent studies showing a strong connection between nasal breathing and cognitive function, suggesting conscious belly breaths through the nose increase attention and focus, making responses easier to find in place of impulse reactions.
“Shallow breathing doesn’t just make stress a response, it makes stress a habit of our bodies, and therefore, our minds, are locked into it,” says John Luckovich, an apprentice Integrative Breathwork facilitator in Brooklyn, New York.
Through yoga, I’ve learned how the mind and body are intrinsically linked, and research shows if you can train the body to breathe deeply in times of stress, the mind can follow suit by forming new neural pathways to better decision making. The breath really is the key to the practice of yoga, on and off the mat. In practicing back bends and heart openers, you can put your body in stressful positions with the sole purpose of focusing on controlling your breath. You can remind yourself in perceived danger that you are safe, again and again, until the Pam faces and traffic tickets of your experience dwindle to blips on your nervous system’s radar.
Practice deep belly breathing. Use your diaphragm and strengthen your core to maintain a posture that invites breath all the way down, filling your lungs completely. Taking a few minutes out of your day to bring awareness to your breath and body can bring order back to the chaos of a stressful experience and ultimately improve your overall health and wellness.
Try a guided meditation if you’re having a hard time sitting still in the beginning. Notice how your attention shifts to how you feel. Ask yourself: where do my decisions come from? If you breathe, you might choose another option in the pause. You might find power behind the awareness. If you believe your life is built by your consistent choices, what could you manifest if you paid attention to each one with a single breath?