The Importance of Breathing
As a physical therapist I always give instruction during a treatment session. After 25 years of practice in the physical therapy field, I would say that the most important instruction I give, hands down , is “Take a breath” , or “ Breathe” or “Inhale, Exhale”. The importance of breath awareness cannot be overestimated. After all it’s the first thing we receive when we enter this world, and it is the last thing we give when we leave. Take some breaths and think about that for a few minutes! Our breath is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental thing, that we do in this world.
The interesting thing about breathing is that is both an automatic function of our body, but also a voluntary function. Breathing will happen whether we think about it or not. The voluntary aspect of breath is a very important feature. We have some control over how slow, fast , deep , or shallow we breathe. This is true even if there is an underlying pulmonary illness, we have control over our breath. At the same time, breathing just happens automatically, there is a default mode to breath. It is part of the ANS, the autonomic nervous system. The ANS is concerned with maintaining homeostasis in your body.
The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two primary divisions work in balance, when one is being activated , the other is deactivated. The sympathetic nervous system, when activated, increases alertness, increases metabolic rate and muscular abilities. When activated in conditions of stress, for example, you will have an increase in blood pressure and increased heart rate. Stress can be good like when exercising ie. Walking quickly or riding the recumbent bike. Stress can also be detrimental as when we are experiencing anxiety. It that case we will also have an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, however, this type of chronic stress can have negative effects on our body. In the conditions of our modern society, there is a tendency for people to have over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system. In our physical therapy practice, we see a large number of people who are experiencing anxiety along with their other symptoms.
The parasympathetic nervous system is more like a brake. The parasympathetic system is more concerned with relaxation response and creating energy reserves. When activated, there will be a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure and a relaxation response. A very simple and easy way to elicit a relaxation response is to practice deep breathing. Slow deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. It brings awareness to your body instead of the worries and frustrations or anxiety that you may be experiencing. Deep breathing reduces muscular tension, it improves posture, and it brings clarity to your mind. Breathing is nourishment for your body (and your spirit!)
I learned of the benefits of breath awareness in my yoga practice, and I bring it to my physical therapy practice every day. It is an inherent tool we have to live our healthiest life. It is highly effective as a nourishing pause when you are working on balance exercises, or neuromuscular reeducation in a vestibular rehabilitation program. I encourage all of my patients to slow down and take a deep breath in between repetitions as we work together. It is fundamental and a vital aspect to our existence and our state of health and well being.
So I encourage you to start today.
Pause, and take some deep breaths.