Friday, September 6, 2013

Take a breath

It's funny how we, as humans, often neglect our bodies and how we control them. I think we take for granted that we can actually control our breathing. I mean, think about it. At any point in time you can consciously change your breathing rhythm and rate until you decide to give up control to your autonomic system.

So is there a point to us being able to do this? Of course there is! We just get so busy that we forget. Which is totally silly because we use the expression "Take a deep breath" when we want someone to calm down.

Your breath, and the filling of your lungs with air is the result of your diaphragm contracting and pulling downwards, changing the pressure within the lungs and forcing air in. The diaphragm (not to be confused with the birth control device... that would be a terrible misunderstanding) is a giant muscle! A beautiful, intricately designed muscle that weaves around your esophagus and descending aorta which works constantly to keep bringing in new air into your lungs.

It is on the exhale that this muscle relaxes and "pushes" air back out. On average we take between 12-16 breaths per minute. Which means, that's how many times the diaphragm contracts! Then add in the fact that our bodies let us turn off the autopilot to control our own breathing... and... is anyone else as amazed as me?  Pretty cool, eh? Now that we have a little perspective, what is the point of being able to control our breath?

Well, first off, we can hold our breath when we go underwater... or if we're shielding our olfactory receptors from some unhappy-making odour in the room. But I really wanted to talk about two amazing things you can do with your breath:

1) Relax. Seriously. Anytime you get worked up about something, stop, put your feet on the ground, close your eyes and take 4 slow deep breaths. Now tell me how you feel after that.

If you need more instructions, I suggest the box method: imagine drawing the 4 sides of a box with your breathing. Inahle 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat that a couple times.

It'll help manage stress, and help you to relax. It also forces you to concentrate on your breath - a key component in both yoga and meditation, so you actually can clear your mind for those few seconds and stop yourself from thinking about whatever it is that made you upset in the first place.

2) Strengthening exercises: Want to support your muscles during your workout? It's so important to breathe while you workout (I hope this is a no-brainer), but also to match your breath with your weight lifting. Each time you do a strengthening exercise you want to exhale during the "lifting/pressing" of any weights and inhale as you release them.

I swear, this isn't phoney bologna. Remember when I said that as you inhale, you're contracting your diaphragm? Well, this is a nice big muscle located just under the lungs and above your abdominal organs. So when you contract this muscle, forcing it to pull down and push up, you're actually also adding more strength and stability to your core. When you isolate certain muscles to work on (ex. bicep curls), you want the rest of your body to be stable and static. You wouldn't slouch ... you want a nice straight spine with shoulders and hips aligned. Well, matching your breath to your weight lifting helps with that.

The bonus is that it forces you to breathe. I know, it sounds silly, but many of us forget to breathe when we workout. We're so caught up in our heads, straining to lift our weights, wanting to bench press just a little more, thinking that we're super strong, but that moment is so intense that we hold our breath! Well, stop it! Or rather, resume breathing!

Make it a goal to just take notice of your breathing each day. Just sit for a few minutes and concentrate on your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, and appreciate just how wonderful the diaphragm is. Feel the muscle contract, feel the air filling your lungs, feel your chest and abdomen expand with each inhale and then pull your abdomen in as you exhale. Brilliant.