If I were to tell you there’s something that will improve your digestion, healing, circulation, mood, cognitive function and movement, and that it is free and it is accessible to nearly everyone, you would think I was lying, or trying to sell snake oil. What I’m talking about here is your breathing. Humans have been using breathing techniques for thousands of years to tap into different levels of consciousness and to improve their overall being. Yoga, tai chi, and various forms of meditation have incorporated breathing into their practices. Indeed, the venerable Joseph Pilates recognized the importance of breathing. In his book, Return to Life Through Contrology, he wrote “breathing is the first act of life, and the last. Our very life depends on it. Since we cannot live without breathing, it is tragically deplorable to contemplate the millions and millions who have never learned to master the art of correct breathing.” If you thought he was holding back on what he really felt, here’s another quote from his book: “Lazy breathing converts the lungs, figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying, and dead germs as well as supplying an ideal haven for the multiplication of other harmful germs.” Unfortunately, Joseph Pilates was a visionary in this regard. Dysfunctional breathing is increasingly common as we spend more time sitting and less time exercising. Dysfunctional breathing can have insidious, detrimental effects on the body ,mostly brought on by autonomic dysfunction.
The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These are also referred to as the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” systems. These primitive systems are there to keep us alive. The sympathetic nervous system, AKA the “fight or flight” system, is meant to protect us from immediate danger, such as in the case of running away from a predator. This system is active when people display superhuman feats of strength during emergencies, such as lifting a car to save a crushed victim. Unfortunately, this system has been hijacked to work overtime in today’s day and age because of the things we PERCEIVE as deadly, including project deadlines and offensive tweets. Shallow breathing contributes to this heightened sympathetic state. Luckily, we can utilize our breath through intentional breath work to promote an increased parasympathetic state. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for healing and digesting, and it helps us obtain restful sleep so our brains can recover from the trauma of being awake. I don’t want to totally bash on the sympathetic nervous system as it is responsible for getting your body ready to exercise and helps us react effectively in times of danger. Most people I see tend to live a “petal to the metal” lifestyle and could benefit from learning how to promote more parasympathetic tone in their bodies. For a thorough and more articulate explanation of the autonomic nervous system, check out the lecture given by Robert Sapolsky in the linked video.