You may be asking yourself, how does something simple as breathing connect your mind and body? Great question! This article will explain the science behind the breath and how mindful breathing can help us enter stillness by cultivating a calm and relaxed experience. To properly explain the importance of breathing, I will need to provide a quick biology lesson. This may help expand or refresh your knowledge about the amazing capabilities of our organs and bodies!
Your breath controls your nervous system. There are two types of nervous systems in the body; sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is mainly activated by stress and prepares the body for “fight or flight” response. This causes heavy chest breathing, where most of us breathe today on a regular basis. The parasympathetic nervous system, however, has a calming influence. It lowers the heart rate and blood pressure and simultaneously promotes digestion and intake of nutrients. It’s dubbed “rest and digest”. Hence, it is primarily utilized during rest, eating and sleeping. This can be ignited with slow, deep and even belly breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing engages your diaphragm, a dome-shaped sheet of muscle located at the bottom of your ribcage. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward. When you exhale, the muscles relax and move upwards, which drives air out of the lungs through your breath. Your lungs are connected to the Vagus nerve, (not the party town), a crucial nerve that connects to the brain. This allows the brain to monitor and receive information about the lungs as well as other parts of the body. This proves that your mind and lungs are 100% connected and communicating constantly. A couple of belly breaths, can tell your brain to kick in the parasympathetic nervous system and start to chill out.
The nasal cycle is the next topic in our biology lesson. The nasal cycle occurs every 3 hours, switching the dominance between your right and left nostrils. If your right nostril is open, this is the solar or energy cycle. You will be more alert and energetic. If your left nostril is open, this is your moon or passive cycle. Ideally, you want your left nostril to be open before meditation. A quick trick to help even out the nasal cycle is Nadi Shodhana, or “alternate nostril breathing. It is a simple yet powerful technique of breathing in and out each nostril separately. For example, you would inhale from your right nostril, close it with your finger and breathe of the left nostril. Then breathe in the left nostril, close it up and breathe out the right nostril. Repeat for 2-3 minutes.
The qualities of the breath for before and during for meditation include:
- Slow: 5-7 breaths per minute
- Deep: belly expands beyond the rib cage
- Even: no pause in the breath or jerkiness
- Quiet: your neighbors shouldn’t hear you
The breath is the meeting place of body, mind, and spirit. The breath, body and mind are completely interconnected and interrelated, when the breath is calm, the body and mind will be calm. When the breath is agitated or labored, the body and mind follow suit and vice versa. In yoga or meditation, we begin with concentration on the physical breath, which leads us into higher awareness, enabling us to enter deeper levels of consciousness. Your breath and postures become steady and relaxed, calm but deliberate. Ultimately, we begin to meet our own spirit and, in this stillness, wisdom and peace arise.
A great way to build strength in your diaphragm is to lay on your back, with your knees propped, place a book or something similar on your belly and practice belly breathing for 5 minutes 2x per day. It’s going to take some time to retrain your brain to use your diaphragm to breathe, so be gentle and patient with yourself during this transition period.
The breath is a great tool to keep your mind in the present moment. Meditation does not empty the mind, but through consistent practice, we learn to direct the mind to become less active. This allow us to enter deeper levels of consciousness. It’s completely natural to have thoughts during meditation but use the breath to bring you back to the present moment each time. Always come back to the breath – in life and in meditation.
This article was submitted by Tara Marini. Practice with Tara on Fridays at 5pm. Register here.
Tara currently lives in Philadelphia, PA but always enjoys escaping the hustle and bustle of the city by stepping onto her mat. Tara fell in love with yoga when she took a stress management class at Penn State in 2008 and has been an avid practitioner ever since. Her dedication and passion for yoga allows her to continually grow and enhance her practice and teaching style. She completed her 200 hour Yogahour Teacher Training at Maha Yoga in 2017. She is excited to share the wealth of yoga to the city of brother love.