Harmful Patterns of Breath
By: Sherika Tenaya
When it comes to prioritizing one’s physical health, emotional resilience, and mental fortitude, there is no greater help or hindrance to our cause than our patterned ways of breathing.
Whether we are breathing consciously or unconsciously, the effects thereof are certainly enacting consequences in our lives for good or for ill. This blog series aims to inform you of the profound impact our breath has on the various facets of our health and what techniques you can use or lose in order to optimize your life.
Yogis have long understood that breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. One of the primary disciplines taught in yoga classes is consciously honing the ability to pay attention to the breath: fully immersing oneself in it, becoming absorbed in the sound of the breath and the pleasurable sensations of breathing. Indeed, giving attention to one’s breath is the first step towards breathing your way to wellness.
Dr. Don Stapleton, founder of the world-renowned Nosara Yoga Institute, highlights the benefits of paying heed to one’s breath in his groundbreaking book, Self Awakening Yoga, ”Conscious use of the breath in yoga (pranayama) allows you to synchronize your breath and movements, inducing a trancelike state of increased awareness, sensitivity, and concentration. The increased concentration that comes from being drawn into the moment induces balance between strength and relaxation, effort and effortlessness.”
Unfortunately, this potent statement can also be read in the reverse: unconscious use of breath oftentimes causes discord and clamor in our body as well as our mind and, more often than not, puts greater stress on the systems of the body and the organs associated with them.
Harmful Habits of Breath
When it comes to thoughtless harmful habits of breath, there is none guiltier and more insidiously common than shallow breathing. The fact of the matter is, most of us breathe shallowly, generally using only the upper part of the lungs and, therefore, only a teensy-tiny percentage of our five-to-seven-quart lung capacity. Over time, this results in marked impairment of immune system responses.
Dr. Stapleton explains, “Over the long term, shallow and superficial breathing deprives the body of oxygen and does not give the lungs an opportunity to empty the stagnant, residual air that remains deeper in the lungs.”
We need to clear that residual air out regularly, allowing the lungs to serve their function of expelling germs and the many environmental toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis. In doing so, we enjoy fewer colds and many of the common ailments that drag us down.
If you have ever been stiff or sore after a good physical workout, unconsciously breathing shallow breaths may be to blame, as muscle fatigue and soreness are direct results of this breath pattern as well.
If we are not breathing shallowly, then the next pneumatic culprit of unconscious patterned breathing would be none other than mouth breathing. Arguably even worse than shallow breathing, mouth breathing actually emulates the stress response. The sinus passageways of the nostrils literally close down in response to stress, and when you breath unconsciously in this manner day in and day out, you are essentially patterning chronic stress into your body and psyche.
As we will come to discover later in this series, we can actually directly influence not only our stress level, but also our mood, simply by altering the way we breathe.
In terms of evolutionary adaptation, our bodies were designed to inspire through the nostrils, not the mouth. Dr. Stapleton paints the picture when he says, “Nostril breathing filters impurities from the incoming air. The mechanism built into the nostrils also adjusts the temperature and humidity of the inhalation by either heating or cooling the air. Shallow mouth-breathing combined with poor postural alignment can turn your lungs into a toxic waste dump.”
So when it comes to consciously harnessing one’s breath to optimize one’s health and life, the first step is to simply become aware of how you breath. Take the time throughout your day to check in with your breath and notice if you hold a certain pattern. Become aware of any harmful habits of breath you may unconsciously be engaged in, primarily those of shallow breathing or mouth breathing.
Look for next week’s blog on breath patterns that will optimize your health and how a few simple shifts in the way you breath can boost your health, beauty and longevity.