Take a breath
Breath is a very simple and natural process. Such a simple thing – how could you possibly get it wrong? Everybody does it, all the time. You can’t ‘forget’ about breathing because obviously, you’d die. The tricky thing is, though, that breathing is controlled both consciously and unconsciously. Conscious breath control is applied in pranayama (Sanskrit: prana = life, or the ‘life force’, in this case loosely translated as breath, and yama means control or discipline) and some forms in meditation, but also in training of swimmers or singers. Even talking requires a conscious control of the breath.
The unconscious processes of the body, like the digestive or hormonal systems, are not controlled by willpower. Also the unconscious respiration proces is not controlled by willpower, but by parts of the brain that react to chemical factors like the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. These reflexes adapt your breath pattern to the circumstances – for instance, while excercising, the level of carbon dioxide increases. This triggers a series of biochemical reactions which ultimately cause a higher level of respiration. And during rest, the level of carbon dioxide lowers again so the need to breathe rapidly is decreased appropriately. These biochemical processes also prevent you to die from holding your breath – when the carbon dioxide levels become too high you will lose consciousness and the breath reflexes take over again.
So the human body seems to be well adapted for unconscious breathing. Why do people put so much effort into developing breathing techniques and exercises? Well. It seems that interactions between the conscious and unconscious respiratory processes do not only occur in case of toddlers holding their breath until they faint. Adults also mess with their breath. Only they don’t do it on purpose.
“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika
A healthy breathing rate in rest is somewhere in between 6 and 10 breaths a minute (although opinions vary widely). During exercise, the breathing rate increases to up to 40 breaths per minute. For endurance sports like running or cycling, 20 to 30 breaths per minute is quite high – just try to inhale-exhale-inhale on each second for a minute and see how that makes you feel (= 30 breaths per minute). Of course, as described above, breathing faster if necessary is no problem at all. Your body responds adequately to the increased level of carbon dioxide that needs to be expelled and the need for oxygenated blood to keep your muscles working. So far, so good.
However, it turns out that for many people, this interaction between respiratory rate and physical activity is disturbed. People that are stressed out, emotional or even just unaware, often breathe with the rate as if they were cycling against the wind, without being aware of doing so. No wonder their heart rates are high, their entire nervous systems are in full fight-or-flight mode, and they are too tired to fall asleep at night.
‘Quietly’ sitting in a chair, millions of Dutchmen pretend to be in danger. In a dangerous situation, the body is fully prepared for action with a high heart rate, a lot of adrenaline – and for this book the most important thing – a heightened respiratory rate. When you are breathing too fast you use a lot of energy, and continuous rapid breathing leads to many physical complaints.
(translation is mine and so are all mistakes)
Change your mind: start with the breath
There is a direct relation between the breath, the body and the mind. A change in any one of these aspects will bring about a change in the others. The nervous or hormonal system are not powers that can be changed at will, as we have seen above. To train the mind into non-stressed behaviour is a process of years and variable success, as any meditator can tell you. So taking your chances with some breathing exercises might be your best bet. Yoga practice can help you to increase your postural awareness and train your ‘breathing muscles‘, as well as give you more breath awareness and breathing techniques.
It is interesting to see that also outside of yoga, people are working with the breath. In the Netherlands, Bram Bakker and Koen de Jong wrote a book called Verademing (translated as Respite but the ambiguity is sadly lost), in wich they describe a lot of the problems that can follow from breathing too fast. They also give solutions, in a very clearly written and accessible form. One of them is a very simple breathing exercise:
- inhale, counting the seconds
- exhale for twice as long as you’ve inhaled. After the exhalation, pause for as long as you inhaled.
- repeat for 10 minutes
Or, you can start with just one breath.