Here are the workshop notes from last weekends retreat day here at Mellulah. A workshop on Mindful Breathing with further practical exercises for Mediation. Feel free to share. Kens next workshop with us will be on Sunday 22nd March as part of our Yoga & Sound Healing Retreat Weekend.
The Science and Art of Breathing
Breathing is something we can all too easily take for granted. After all, we don’t have to consciously think about it, because its normally handled for us by our subconscious. However, whilst many of its effects are quite subtle it has a profound influence upon our physical and mental well being.
The In-Breath and the Out-Breath are quite obviously two very different actions. It is easy to understand the simple process of breathing in fresh air, and then breathing out any stale air to make way for more fresh, but in reality breathing is a very much more complicated activity. So much so that the In-Breath and the Out-Breath are handled by completely different parts of our autonomic nervous system (the part of the body’s communication and control system that influences the functioning of our internal organs).
Anxiety / Relaxation and the Nervous System
Our autonomic nervous system has two branches, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Para-Sympathetic Nervous System (PNS). They use different chemicals to send signals to various parts of the body such as the heart and the digestive system and they usually function in opposition to one another in order to create a balance within our mind/body system.
The functions of the SNS include the Fight-or-Flight response, which is designed to energise us when we are faced with extreme danger and we need to act instinctively without thinking too much, because in a true life-or-death crisis we don’t have time to stop and think.
On the other hand the functions of the PNS include what has been called the Rest-and-Digest response. This calms us down and helps us to think more clearly.
Problems occur when the SNS/PNS system is out of balance. Over activation of the SNS can lead to problems like anxiety, panic attacks, high blood pressure (hypertension) and digestive disturbance. Over activation of PNS can result in excessively low blood pressure and fatigue.
It is important to understand the link between the way that we breathe and the way that the two halves of our nervous system operate. This gives us a vital tool that we can use whenever we need to calm ourselves down and take back control of our thoughts and feelings.
Breathing and the Nervous System
The In-Breath is associated with the Sympathetic side of our nervous system and the Out-Breath with the Para-Sympathetic.
When we are anxious our system is being strongly influenced by the SNS. Our breathing is rapid and shallow as we use just the upper part of our lungs, high in our chest. Our heart beats faster, and this raises our blood pressure.
In contrast, when we are calm our system is being more strongly influenced by the PNS. We breathe more slowly and deeply, down into the lower part of our lungs which means that our belly expands/contracts rather than our chest. Our heart beats slows and that lowers our blood pressure.
Knowing all this means that whenever we find ourselves becoming over anxious we can counteract the over-activation of our SNS by deliberately slowing down and deepening our breathing and in particular by prolonging each out-breath. This increases the supply of the calming chemicals released by the PNS, which counteract the stimulating chemicals released by the SNS. This can take a little while to master, but once we learn to control our breathing in this way we are able to free ourselves of feelings of anxiety and panic.
There is another very important way that this method of using our breathing reduces our levels of anxiety, and that is the link between our thoughts and our feelings. When we begin to feel anxious our thoughts naturally turn to things that we may feel threatened by. In other words we begin to think negatively, which all too easily results in a vicious cycle of anxious thoughts, leading to anxious feelings, leading to more anxious thoughts, leading to more anxious feelings and so on. Round and round we go, feeling steadily worse and ever more out of control.
However, when we take control of our thoughts and deliberately start to change our breathing, to slow it down, deepen it, and prolong the out-breath, then we give our mind something positive to focus on. This naturally interrupts any anxious thoughts and stops that vicious cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings.
Prolonging the Out-Breath in particular increases the calming effect of the PNS, which allows us to begin to think more clearly and to see the bigger picture, with everything in its correct proportion. This stops us making mountains out of mole hills!
The human mind is prone to negative thinking. As the philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) once said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never actually happened”
The good news is that we are not powerless to stop a runaway brain! With just a little daily practice we can learn to instantly interrupt any negative thoughts that are leading us to feel anxious, depressed, helpless, and to take control of our thoughts and feelings so that we are able to think more clearly and to cope better with whatever life requires us to deal with.
So take a deep breath in now, allowing your belly to expand, pause, and breathe out long and slow, and notice how good it feels to be in control.