Breathing is something we do every minute of our lives. The average adult breathes about 20,000 times each day without ever giving the process a thought. Breathing is actually a complex procedure that requires a specific cluster of cells in the brain, known as the preBötzinger Complex, to signal the nerves in the spinal cord that control the skeletal muscles that move the diaphragm to expand and contract the lungs.
The interesting thing about breathing is that it is not just an autonomic function in the body. Unlike the heart or the digestive system, breathing is both voluntary and involuntary, which means we can override the system to breathe in specific ways. Breathing must also be coordinated with other body functions, such as swallowing and yawning, as well as speaking, singing, or other types of vocalizations.
Deep breathing is something that can occur automatically, like the deep breath before a yawn or deep breathing after physical exercise, or it can be voluntary. It is this voluntary deep breathing that forms the central component of mindfulness, meditation, and even in yoga practice.
There are several benefits to deep breathing. Mastering effective deep breathing takes practice, but it is something that you can do anywhere and at any time. Here are just a few of the many benefits deep breathing has to offer:
- Mental decluttering – it is common to bring thoughts from one activity in the day into a new activity. This makes it difficult to focus and concentrate and can often create feelings of anxiety and stress. To get rid of mental clutter, sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and arms resting comfortably to your sides. Take in a deep breath through the nose, counting to 4. Imagine filling your belly with air. Release the breath through the mouth for a count of 6. Repeat 3-5 times, counting slowly in your head.
- Tension reduction – if you tend to carry tension in your shoulders, neck, or back, deep breathing can help reduce tension, pain, and even reduce headaches. Use the same breathing technique as above, closing your eyes and remaining calm and focused on the sensation of the cool air coming into your body and the hot air going out.
- Energize – for a quick pick-up that doesn’t include sugar or caffeine, deep breathing is a great solution. The action of deep breathing draws in oxygen needed for cell functioning. At the same time, the focused relief of air helps to detoxify the body and remove carbon monoxide.
- Increased blood flow – moving the core muscles that control breathing stimulates blood flow to the body. Combined with oxygenated blood, this muscle movement helps to relax the body, stimulate the lymphatic system, and lower blood pressure as the muscle tissue relaxes and blood vessels expand.
Deep breathing really is a super power. It is a simple thing to do before a stressful meeting, if you need a mental break, or to schedule regularly throughout the day.