Breath and Balance
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Being stable physically on one foot, or even two feet is important in a practical sense to keep you safe as you move through life. Feeling off balance triggers your stress response and feeling more 'grounded' or supported can help relieve anxiety (read my other post about your balance muscles). Different parts of your breathing have different qualities and that can help you to find better balance physically, mentally and emotionally.
Your breathing has a profound effect on your physical chemistry. It changes the carbon dioxide level in your blood and can trigger or suppress stress hormones. Your body is smart. We take for granted that it automatically adjusts your breathing to fit the situation. You can control your breathing consciously and form different breathing habits – even if habits are not functionally useful. There are limits. Your survival depends on your breath, so your body will intervene to regulate your breathing.
I recommend taking a kind and gentle approach to your breath. Determination and brute force are unhelpful and will only trigger a stress response and tension. Take special care if you have high blood pressure or heart problems – you may notice tiny natural pauses between your breaths instead of holding and that is absolutely perfect.
Inhale – take a deep breath!
In yoga your inhale is…
Gives you support
Scientists tend to agree. When you inhale, your heart rates speeds up a little bit. If you hold your breath after breathing in, then you stay longer in this state with a faster heart rate. A faster heart rate is part of your stress response - it’s getting you ready for action. So it’s not good advice to take a deep breath and count to ten as you hold it when you’re angry. You’re more likely to say EXACTLY what you’re thinking when you let it go!
Inhaling physically supports your lumbar spine as long as your diaphragm can move easily. If tension or postural habits make it difficult for you to use your diaphragm, then you won’t benefit from this support. Functional breathing mechanics help you to be more physically stable.
A practice for your inhale
Get up now and take a big, whole body stretch - as if you just got out of bed.
Did you breathe in when you did that? Maybe you yawned as well.
Try it again, but breathe in on purpose as you do it.
Did you feel how your inhale is an active, energising breath? No wonder we naturally do this in the morning.
Exhale – let it all go
In yoga your exhale is…
Allows you to rest into external support
Yes, when you exhale your heart rate slows down a little bit. If you (gently) hold your breath after you exhale, then you stay longer in the slower heart rate. You need to stay comfortable and hold without strain otherwise you’ll trigger a stress response.
A long cranial nerve called your vagus nerve looks after your relaxation (or stress) response. It connects into lots of places in your body including your diaphragm. Deep, rhythmic breathing using your diaphragm stimulates your vagus nerve and triggers your relaxation response.
A practice for your exhale
You’ll need to read all the instructions first...
Lie down on your back with as many pillows and as much padding as you need to be comfortable (there’s a blog about lying comfortably too).
Put your hands on your tummy and just feel the weight of your hands. Don’t try to make them move or do anything different with your breathing.
Relax your face, especially relax your lips until there’s a little space between them.
Breathe in through your nose and softly blow your breath away between your lips.
Maybe you notice the space under your hands move… maybe not... it's the awareness that's important.
Blowing soap bubbles (sitting up!) has a similar effect. It's more subtle because when you sit or stand, your diaphragm is one of your supporting muscles, so it doesn't get so involved in breathing.