Why the Breath?

For something as basic to all of us as our breath, it is easy to take it for granted. The breath is a powerful resource. We usually breathe without thinking about it, day and night. In fact, we breathe about 20,000 breaths a day. I have a special interest in the breath, and in breathing techniques. The breath is an immediate resource we all possess to promote our own health and well-being.

Stressed breathing is shallow and rapid. Deeper breathing like diaphragmatic breathing, where we ought to be breathing most of the time, allows our bodies to function optimally. When our breathing is deeper, slower and longer we derive these benefits:

  • Relaxed muscles
  • Heart rate slows
  • Blood pressure lowers
  • Digestion is active
  • Immune system is operating

Conversely, all these systems undergo changes or are suspended when we are stressed. Ultimately, these changes are important for our survival and adaptation.  However, as you know, our fight or flight response is often activated by simple stress. Our breath is finely calibrated to our stress response. Consider for instance, that if a person’s stress response is activated and continues in a chronic stress state, all the healthy actions that the breath provides are suspended or limited, even our immune system. It is no wonder then, that we can more easily become ill. It makes a big difference in our health to be able to return to an alert, but more relaxed state.

The breath is the single most effective method of stress reduction we have. I tell this to law students all the time when I am teaching them stress management techniques. I’m not alone in this thinking.  In, A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response, (Sec. Ed.), Everly and Lating say,

Controlled respiration is one of the oldest and certainly
the single, most efficient, acute intervention for the
mitigation and treatment of excessive stress.

Everly and Lating

Eastern religions and philosophies have understood for thousands of years the fundamental importance of the breath for health, well-being, and spiritual development.  Without breath there is no life. It animates us. Our bodies know how to breathe for us. Like no other function in the body, it is both a voluntary and an involuntary process.

We breathe by nature; we alter it by consciousness,
which gives us health and well-being.