Can we agree that, for human beings, breath is pretty fundamental?! It’s with us from shortly after our birth until the moment we die, and it’s inextricably linked both to our survival and to our quality of life — and to our capacity for feeling, thought and expression. Every emotional response we have is reflected to a greater or lesser extent in our breath. Additionally we use the breath to express thoughts and feelings through our voice, and when the breath is held or fixed this ability becomes limited in both subtle and obvious ways. And because the muscles of respiration are so much a part of the structure of the torso, when we hold on with them unnecessarily we introduce tension into the rest of our musculoskeletal system which has to brace in compensation.
Breath can be experienced as both simple and highly complex. What could be simpler and more natural than taking a breath? And yet the more we go into it the more we realise how intricate it is. When the breath is functioning as it should the diaphragm, ribs, soft palate, belly, viscera and pelvic floor are all involved. And because these structures are all moveable, and are also involved in supporting the structure of the torso which in turn integrates with the rest of the body, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole organism is involved in every breath we take. This involvement can either be a gentle and flexible support, or it can be a rigid containment but, either way, the breath is continually and fundamentally linked to qualities of tone, balance and emotion expressed in the organism as a whole.
One reason why working with the breath is particularly helpful to anyone wanting to be more free, open and expressive in themselves, is that it is the one place where the autonomic nervous system (which controls automatic functions like heartbeat, breathing and digestion) and the voluntary nervous system meet. So long as I am alive I will continue to breathe, and this will happen spontaneously whether I want to or not. But I also have the power to control my breath myself to a significant extent. I can choose to interrupt my breathing for a while, to speed it up, slow it down, maker it deeper or shallower. I can choose to prioritise different parts of the breathing mechanism — for example I can breathe more with the diaphragm, or more with the ribs. I can choose to breathe through the nose or the mouth or both together or alternately.
This ability to override the autonomic nervous system and control the breath ourselves evolved for good reasons. We might need to swim under water, or to freeze to avoid a predator, or to hear subtle details in our environment more clearly. In addition, higher order vocal communication such as talking, singing and chanting, requires us to make higher level choices about how and when to breathe. All this is good and necessary but, as with every thing we do, whenever our higher level control systems get involved (the separate ’you’ in your head that thinks it knows what it is doing) it is easy to fall into over controlling. This is exactly what many of us do with our breath, so that over time it becomes more and more constrained and less free. Rather than a delicate, spontaneous, full, supported, pulse-like ‘happening’ it becomes tight, constricted, limited, partial and constrained.
Because breathing involves continual movement which is both automatic and able to be controlled, it is a wonderful ‘laboratory’ to explore how we interfere with our deeper level functions, and to learn to let go and allow them to work as they should. Breath is there all the time wanting to delicately do its thing, so it gives us an ideal opportunity to notice how we get over-involved, and to discover whether we can allow things within us to happen more spontaneously.
In my next couple of posts I’m going to go deeper into how breathing works, and look at ways we can start to let go of unnecessary control and allow it to regain its full functioning. In the meantime, you could try just being more aware of your breath as you go about your day. How do you experience it? Where does it feel held and where does it feel free? What emotions are linked to it for you?
Here are a couple of books I recommend if you interested in going into this further yourself. The first is more general, the second is written particularly from a yoga perspective.