Every Breath You Take

We know why we breathe. And we care about what we breathe. Now it’s time to give some thought to how we breathe.

Text: Niklas Wahllöf     Illustration: Valero Doval

We all need to breathe, but it’s such a natural thing that we tend not to think about it. However, we have recently become alarmed by what we breathe. As the effects of environmental degradation manifest around the globe, maintaining good air quality is a constant concern. We are also increasingly interested in how we breathe. As it turns out, quite a few of us breathe in ways that make our lives unnecessarily difficult and which may even make us sick.

According to a 2016 article in Harvard Health Publications, the fight or flight response – an ancient reflex in situations of real or perceived danger – can still be triggered in modern human beings. But rather than being triggered by predators on the savannah, we now receive stress stimuli in the form of distress and agitation caused by concern for our work or social status, financial or relational problems, as well as pressure and crowding.

The breathing that comes with this is rapid and shallow: “collarbone breathing”. In its most extreme manifestation, it barely lets air enter the lungs before it is exhaled again. Collarbone breathing creates a state of constant readiness and provides inadequate oxygenation of the lungs. As a consequence, the chances of relaxation and recovery are dramatically reduced, while more serious effects include increased blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Meanwhile, so-called “chest breathing” – where the muscles between the ribs, rather than the diaphragm, are used to expand the chest – is more common than collarbone breathing, but also provides too little oxygen.

Controlled breathing is extremely useful for dealing with various symptoms of stress – it is meditation for people who can’t meditate.

The Harvard Health Publications article suggests that the beauty ideals of our time may be one cause of our impaired breathing. The ideal of a flat belly makes us constantly pull in our abdominal muscles, which negatively affects breathing and does not provide enough oxygen to the lower parts of the lungs. According to the research, this alone may cause anxiety.

We don’t do enough deep breathing today, and this is a downward spiral: stress makes us breathe incorrectly, which in turn makes us feel worse and more stressed. The good news is that you can do something. Breathing is one of the life-sustaining body functions that we can control ourselves.

“Close your mouth!” advises respiratory instructor Anders Olsson. Keeping one’s mouth closed is the first step to controlled, conscious breathing. Olsson has worked with conscious breathing for almost a decade, leading courses, giving lectures, and providing coaching on the topic. He first came into contact with the concept when he left a high-performance life as an IT contractor. In spite of achieving success and earning good money in this profession, he says he often felt “if not burned out, then at least burnt”. Olsson subsequently began practising proper breathing and realised that it was by far the most powerful technique for recovery that he had encountered.

“To begin with, breathing through the nose leads to direct breathing that is smoother and quieter, and therefore deeper. I have run a half marathon with duct tape on my mouth to demonstrate this,” says Olsson. “The nose is definitely one of our most underrated organ,” he continues. “It filters many of the billions of particles we ingest daily. It also warms, moistens and prepares the air for the lungs. By contrast, the air we breathe through our mouths is dry, cold and unfiltered.”

Breathing awareness is not entirely new – just a little forgotten. As early as around BCE 500, Siddhartha Gautama – or Buddha, more commonly – is said to have argued that enlightenment could only be reached through controlled breathing. And in numerous languages, countless colloquial terms describe the way we breathe as being central to taking control of pressured situations: “Catch your breath”, “Take a deep breath”, “Just breathe.” Although certain forms of exercise involving breathing awareness are becoming more common today – note the massive popularity of yoga and qigong – we still seem to have a problem. Olsson wants to demystify the subject.

“The fact that yoga and qigong have become popular in the West does not mean that proper breathing has followed,” Olsson says. “I’ve had many people in my classes with yoga experience who believed they had a good breathing technique. Even opera singers, athletes, and freedivers can have good breathing technique during an exercise, but breathing in a certain way for a certain exercise is not the same as proper breathing in daily life. A thousand breaths per hour is what I work towards.”

Once Olsson began to study the topic in depth, he saw that it primarily attracted two disparate camps: strict medical scientists interested in breathing’s effects on the blood, and those who breathe “to feel the sun and moon.” But breathing might currently be on its way to a new status, reflected not least in the popular scientific field. In a feature leading up to the 2016 publication of Breathe by psychologist Belisa Vranich, The New York Times argued that “controlled breathing is extremely useful for dealing with various symptoms of stress.” Speaking to The New York Times, Vranich said: “It is meditation for people who can’t meditate.”

“Everything we do, our mental or physical stress, is always reflected in our breath,” says Olsson. “The most common thing I hear people say after starting training in breathing is that they get better sleep, more energy, and a calmer mind.”

 

FOUR TIPS FOR BETTER BREATHING – ANDERS OLSSON’S BEST ADVICE.

1. Close your mouth! Breathing through your nose is essential.

2. Extend exhalation. Exhaling is linked to relaxation, like breathing out when the danger is over – phew! Our heart-rate increases when we inhale and decreases when we exhale. Take a conscious breath by lengthening the exhalation: you will slow down your tempo, and fill the lower parts of your lungs.

3. Try to exercise – running, for ­example – with your mouth closed. You will breathe more evenly and this will give you more energy and a feeling of balance.

4. If you want, you can try to tape your mouth at night. It sounds strange but it works ­wonders. When we breathe through our mouths, we can begin to hyperventilate and deprive the body of oxygen and vital recovery.

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