The Amazing Process of Breathing – Why feeling it and being aware of it is good for us
Rachel Lambert, South West based IBMT practitioner writes about her theme for her forthcoming Nature and Body Retreat, the first one focusing on the Lungs, Breath and Environment.
I am amazed.
I have to say, when I take the time to sense into my body and reflect on all it does, I find myself truly astounded and wowed. This natural organism, my body, through all the ups and downs I put it through, and that life throws at it, manages to keep everything in a finely tuned balance. Not perfectly of course, though good enough.
Take the process of breathing for example; my diaphragm involuntarily rises and falls, forcing air in and out of my lungs from the environment around me. Oxygen is then diffused into my blood stream and sent around my body to nourish all of my body’s cells. This nourishment is essential to my existence, enabling my body to work properly and flourish. And of course, this is just one part within the process of breathing and one function within the whole of the human body.
Perhaps it sounds simple?
Perhaps it just sounds like lots of words, meaningless and theoretical?
These processes are actually happening inside all of us, all the time, in a very practical, real way. The fact that I don’t have to do anything for the process of breathing to happen, it happens automatically, could be a reason to stop reading now, and pay no further attention to this.
However, the process of breathing is affected by many things under our control, if we were just aware of them. Both studies (1) and organisations as broad as cancer research, NHS and MIND (the mental health charity), as well movement disiplines such as yoga, tai chi, chi qong and somatics all acknowledge that our feelings, actions and thoughts have an impact on the body, and many would adovate an impact on our breathing too.
What I am saying is, even though the process of breathing happens automatically, I and you can also influence it, and do, all the time, through our thoughts, feelings and actions. Perhaps we know this very well through doing aerobic exercise, yogi breathing exercises, or singing – yes this all impacts our physical well-being and makes us feel good too. Though somatic awareness can support us in more subtle yet deeper way – this isn’t about forcing the body, it is more about listening.
Somatics is a process of awareness – paying attention to one’s own internal experience of sensations and feelings. Meditation and mindfulness practices teach us that awareness helps us know ourselves better, and opens up choices between our responses and reactions to ourselves, others and the world. I also wrote about this in my previous blog; How Presence and Being in the Moment can be Helpful for Real Change. This paying attention, can in turn make us more appreciative of life and, more in control.
Lets look at this a little more, and I’ll talk you through my own experience as I sit here at the computer. Right now, if I pay attention to my breathing, just for a few moments, several things start to happen;
- I naturally want to change my posture (I have a tendency to slump which will inhibit my lung capacity)
- My body wants to take a deeper breath (stimulated by paying attention to my lungs and relaxing a little)
- I become more aware of the present moment (I feel more vital, energised, and less stuck in ‘doing’ mode)
- I become aware of a pleasant feeling of excitement, which I’d been blocking out in favour of just getting this blog finished (I now feel more in touch with my joy, rather than stuck in ‘doing’ mode, again)
Shifting my awareness for just a few moments, and paying attention to my lungs/lung area of my body, my breathing and feelings and sensations in these places has been beneficial for me, in several small though significant ways. It has helped improve my posture, deepened my breath (both would help the phyiscal capacity of my lungs) and put me in touch with joy, excitement, vitality, freedom and energy.
Of course, learning to pay attention to our bodies can take time. Like anything, the more we practice the easier and quicker it becomes. Firstly we may notice the sensations that are shouting at us, though with time and skill, the more subtle aspects of alignment, feeling and connection between the two can become apparent.
This all sounds pretty positive! Though anyone who has experienced mindfulness practices may know that awareness can also put us in touch with uncomfortable feelings and sensations, which I mention in the awareness exercise below. But don’t forget, with awareness comes the possibility of change, and with no awareness it is easy to go blindly on, which is fine if things are working well, and not so fine if things could work and feel better.
For me, being able to take the mechanism of breathing beyond a mere thought and just using the lungs (e.g. making them work through activity), into bodily sensation and feeling is essential. Especially, if I want to understand my body better and support my body to make appropriate adjustments and changes. I find that somatics provides a useful framework for this.
Becoming aware of your own breathing, from lips and nostrils, down the trachea to the lungs themselves (you’ll be amazed how large they actually are) through the branches of the brionchial tree, to the bronchioles (smallest airways) and the alveoli where the oxygen is diffused into the blood, can help increase your lungs capacity. We also know that focusing on the breath, without forcing it, can be relaxing and help calm the nervous system. Bringing awareness to your breathing and lungs can also highlight different bodily patterns and habits – once aware, we create a choice for changing these.
Why don’t you have a go now. I suggest you read through the exercise first, including the asterisked pointers;
Take a moment right now to sit, lie or stand and focus on your breathing.*
You don’t need to change anything, just become aware of the process of breathing – air coming in through your nose or mouth and filling your lungs. Perhaps you notice your chest rising and falling or your belly moving in and out.
Now take your attention to the space of your lungs, lets keep this simple for now – the space between your collar bone and just below your bust (and equivalent line for men), either side of your heart and 3-dimensionally filling your upper torso, within your rib cage.
Take your time to focus on this area, imagining travelling inside your own body and more importantly, feel into this area of your body. Take your time.
Do this for 3 minutes and see what you notice.
What do you feel here? Is there an emotion (happy, sad, angry, peaceful, numb or something else)?
Are there sensations (spacious, light, dark, heavy, numb or something else)?
Do not jump to judge your experience, just notice. Can you allow it just to be there? Not trying to change anything, just being aware.
See if you notice any changes while you do this. There may be physical, or emotional or mental changes (are your thought patterns changing?). See if you can notice subtle changes underneath anything that feels strong that may be pulling your attention more obviously.
Now see if your body wants to change position, how does it want to move, or adjust itself now that your awareness has changed?
Finally, let go of this exercise, and allow yourself to move freely. Awareness is a useful tool, though there is also a time to let go of this and just allow the body to move itself naturally and spontaneously.
This was a very brief and simple introduction to somatic awareness of your breathing and lungs. There are many awareness exercises that you can do to help increase this awareness and support you’re lungs capacity – both physically and emotionally. The process of breathing has many aspects, all of which we can have a different relationship to, that can also change over time.
*If feelings become too intense you can let go of the exercise, and if it feels appropriate you can come back to it another time for a shorter period of time, or seek the guidance of a somatic practitioner to support you in the process. This can be particularly helpful if there are strong emotions/experiences that you may be holding in your lungs or pattern of breathing.
If you’d like to explore your relationship to your lungs and breathing, both inside and in nature, I will be offering a series of Nature and Body Retreats, the first one focusing on the Lungs, Breath and Environment on the 1st Saturday of March 2018. You can see the details here and book here.
‘Be aware of your breathing, and this too will nourish each step‘ Thick Nhat Hanh (A Guide to Walking Meditation)
(1) Dr. Mercala (2014), Imaging technology finally reveals how Emotions manifest in your Body, American Academy of Family Physicians (2017) Mind/Body Connection: How your Emotions affect your Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health-Related Quality of Life (2016)