From the moment we are born, we breathe, and we do not stop until we die. Together with our heartbeat, breathing is a fundamental indicator of life. Both animals and plants must breathe when alive, although the chemical process involved is different.
Besides its inevitable physiological importance, it is also infused with a tremendous spiritual and esoteric significance. The breath is a potent element – a bridge between spiritual and physical worlds in nearly every continent and known culture, from animism and voodoo, to Asia, India and aboriginal Australia.
In some Hindu and Buddhist traditions, a breath from a monk is believed to impart a blessing. Yoga in all its variants is founded upon correct breathing. Ayurveda often prescribes specific breathing techniques as treatments for ailments and imbalances. Martial arts mastery relies heavily on ones ability to control breathing in stressful situations. Aboriginal world-view recognises and honours a metaphorical breath in every living thing and natural phenomenon. The simplest form of meditation always begins with observing one's breath.
But this mysticism is not accidental, it is an important evolutionary necessity. And while its mystical importance may have waned in modern society, its physiological reason has not.
Breathing is a largely autonomous process. A part of your neural system at the bottom of the brain controls the muscles in your chest and abdomen to inflate and deflate your lungs. This part of the brain takes its instructions from a cluster of sensors. We have sensors in our veins and arteries that detect the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide. We have sensors in the lungs that detect noxious fumes. Other sensors detect fluid in the lungs, and yet another set detects our activity and exertion levels. And finally, our conscious instruction also controls our breath. We can hold our breath (generally until our blood CO2 levels forces us to breathe again).
But while breathing is generally governed by our emotional state (and its causes), such as stress, fatigue, fear, anger, or pleasure, joy and bliss, it is also the means by which we can also intentionally affect these emotions. For example, deliberately pacing and slowing down your breath will lower your adrenaline levels caused by a stressful situation, and conversely hyperventilating will raise them.
As a kid I always preferred individual sports over the team-based kind. It was not until I was a teenager that I realised I was affected by asthma. I understood that within a team, the pace was determined by others. In individual sports however, I could set my own pace and was thus able to work around asthma attacks. I also began to practice meditation and mind-body control exercises that I learned from books, and figured out a fool-proof way to deal with my asthma, which I rely on to this day. It has allowed me to race triathlons for a decade, including finishing the challenging "Goondiwindi Hell of The West" triathlon several times. It also has made it possible for me to play and perform the Japanese bamboo flute.
But controlling your breath does not just have a profound effect on how you feel; it also affects your physical performance. Perhaps the most unexpected experience came while participating in a Wim "The Ice-man" Hof workshop. We were asked to do push-ups immediately after a specific breathing. Not only did the exercise seem like it required less effort than normal, but my heart-rate was also surprising: it barely increased despite of the burst of intense activity.
Breathing is your secret weapon. It is the central control panel for your body and your mind and we are only just beginning to understand its capacity to affect your health in general, including the mental aspect of it. So it is definitely worth investing time and attention to your breath. Begin by deliberately becoming more aware of how your breath changes and is affected by your circumstances, activities and responses.
Then bring your intention to your breath. Experiment with different ways to regulate it, aiming to maintain steady, deep (but not at your maximum – aim to just breathe a little deeper than you are accustomed to breathing normally) breaths, with a brief pause after inhaling and exhaling. A simple way of making your breath "deeper" is literally visualising drawing air in and down by pulling your diaphragm and abdomen down. Deliberately controlling the movement of your diaphragm is tricky so this will take some practice. The main thing to remember is that expanding your chest more WON'T allow you to take deeper breaths.
There is a huge range of breath exercises that you can apply depending on your circumstances, but for most of the time you will only need the simplest technique: just to take between 5 and 10 controlled breaths and before you have reached the last one you will already experience a very significant change in physical and emotional states. Best of all: you can do this anytime, anywhere!