Most of my memories of boarding school revolve around food, but I do recall one curious evening when we were all summoned to the common room. Our British matron was very red in the face as she waved a slim book at us. The book’s cover had a picture of a beautiful woman whose golden hair shone as she gazed up at an impeccable dressed man, who had for some reason forgotten to button up his shirt. This was my introduction to the Mills and Boons novel. Our matron was livid after finding this one in a senior’s room and proceeded to lecture us on the folly of thinking that love was all about “gasping breath”, “heaving chests” and “choked emotions.” I remember leaving the room and thinking that passionate love had something to do with breathlessness and, in very extreme cases, asthma.
Years later, I realize that I was not that far from the truth - extreme emotion is linked to our breath. Just think of these common phrases: “She choked on her anger…”, “He gasped when he saw her…”, ‘They held their breath in anticipation…”. Life itself seems to be a gamut of emotions bracketed by the inhale of life and the exhale of death.
Take a deep breathe
Yet, for something that is so vital to life itself, we pay it little attention. Unless of course you are a yogi! Ancient yogis have always focused on the breath and as the saying goes “A yogi measures life, not by the number of years, but by the number of breathes.”
To fully understand the importance of breath we should take a look at the mechanics of breathing. If you practice yoga it’s possible that you have heard your teacher saying – ‘breath into the belly’. No, she doesn’t need to go back to biology class and realise that the lungs are in the chest cavity and not in the stomach! What she is actually referring to, is the movement of the diaphragm. Whilst the chest moves when we breathe, it is actually the diaphragm which is doing all the work. The diaphragm must contract, causing the stomach to bulge, in order to create a vacuum in the lungs for air to be drawn inwards. Inversely, as we exhale the abdomen moves inwards, the diaphragm returns to its dome-like shape and carbon dioxide is expelled from the lungs.
So what is the problem you might ask? We are obviously breathing enough to be alive, to climb the stairs when the lift breaks down and to dance the night away. Yes, breathing does equal living, but good breathing, equals good living. This method of deep diaphragmatic breathing or yogic breathing has the power to transform body and mind.
Body: Rapid breathing is a signal to our bodies to get into fight and flight mode. The trigger-happy sympathetic nervous system begins to shoot adrenalin and cortisone into your system. Little amounts of these are not harmful, but like red wine, a little is good for you but too much can lead to problems.
On the other hand, deep diaphragmatic breathing activates the para-sympathetic nervous system. When this system dominates it stimulates the body’s relaxation response leaving you feeling like you got a big hug from your best friend.
Mind: Now this is where it gets interesting. Breathing is one of the few functions of our body which happens both consciously and unconsciously thus allowing us to connect with the conscious and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is the tip of the proverbial iceberg and is affected by the ‘weather’ or immediate situations. The unconscious mind is the hidden mass below the surface with the power to sink the Titanic. Most emotional outbursts find their source in the unconscious mind.
So maybe you are thinking, okay, just breathe deeply and all will be well? Let me point out that that is easy when life is easy but not so easy when life is hard. If you walk into your office right now to ask for leave and your boss not only denies it but sticks you with a working weekend, you are probably going to feel, choked with anger.
Here is where the science of yoga steps in and teaches us to use the practice of asana (and eventually pranayama) to help control the breath. It’s fairly easy to breathe in simple asanas, but as the asanas become more challenging, as you feel pain and perhaps even fear, you will notice a tendency to hold the breath. As we learn to breathe deeply, even in the difficult asanas, a little miracle happens - we learn to breathe deeply in difficult situations. Just one deep breath can stop you from uttering hurtful words that may break a friendship or hot-headed remarks that could lead to your boss showing you the door; in this way, we avoid emotional upheavals and their subsequent Titanic – like disasters.
This is the power of the breath.