Conflict Between Mind and Body
All of these breathing adaptations we have been looking at occur naturally when our body responds appropriately to the demands placed on it. However sometimes we do not respond appropriately to the demands placed on us. This is due to the dynamic relationship between our mind and our body.
You see how our body reacts is a combination of its natural response to the environmental demands on it and what our mind TELLS it about the demands on it and how it should respond to these.
Sometimes this creates a conflict. For example, you might be trying to relax, but your mind is telling your body to hold your tummy in to keep up appearances. This means that your body will not be able to breathe by expanding the abdomen fully and you will not be able to relax fully.
Some other examples:
- You see someone that you are romantically interested in and you become excited and your body wants to breathe faster, but your mind tells you to play it cool so you suppress your breathing and try to keep it slow.
- You go to lift a heavy weight and your body naturally wants to adapt by bracing your abdominal muscles, but you incorrectly believe that you should always breathe with full expansion of your abdomen so your mind tells your body to breathe this way.
- You see your boss, who you are angry at, deep down you would like to hit him (in previous times this would have been an appropriate response to someone you are angry at) but you know you need to remain professional, so you try to look calm and relaxed even while inside your body wants to be active.
When we experience these types of conflict between what our body naturally wants to do and what our mind tells it to do, the body will often become confused and develop ineffective breathing patterns. Often it will build up and hold on to tension in the muscles that it is being told both to activate and leave relaxed as it they have conflicting signals going to them. These tensions may remain long after the situation has passed and may continue to affect breathing patterns.
At its most extreme this can develop into a pattern of holding some muscles completely in spasm, or holding your breath completely, a classic case of when you don’t know what to do – do nothing. There are situations where holding your breath is useful, such as when your head is under water, or in certain breathing exercises, but a regular habit of holding your breath or locking your muscles when there is no need to do so can be very harmful to your health.
There is a natural cycle of breathing patterns to stimulate and then relax the body.
It begins with relaxed breathing in and out through the nose. This is the easiest type of breathing for the body, and the way we should breathe almost all of the time. When the body begins to become alert or stimulated it will sniff. This sniffing fires off a chain of chemical reactions in the body and causes the release of various hormones depending on what exactly is smelt. As the body goes into action it will breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. This is the controlled exertion phase. The body is gaining some of the muscle activation benefits of mouth breathing during the exhalation phase while continuing to maintain the filtering benefits of nose breathing during the inhalation phase. At full activity the body breathes in and out quite rapidly through the mouth. At full stimulation or exertion, the body is more concerned with total energy output than it is with filtering the air. The nasal sinuses may even become congested at this level of stimulation as the body wants to force mouth breathing which is appropriate for intense physical activity so that you will DO something about it rather than continue to think about it. Finally there is the recovery phase where stimulation and activity levels start to decrease and the body breathes in through the mouth and out through the nose. Finally the body returns to its resting breathing pattern of breathing in and out through the nose.
You can think of this a bit like a throttle or gear system on the body’s metabolism. Nose breathing is like low gear, only allowing a restricted flow of air through keeps the engine running low. Sniffing starts to prime the stimulation and moves the metabolism into a higher gear part way between nose and mouth breathing where you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathing in and out through the mouth is full throttle. Moving to inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose is like changing down gears and benefiting from engine braking to help slow you down. It is much better to shift down through the gears than to go suddenly from fifth gear to first! Finally the engine of the metabolism returns to a slow idle breathing in and out through the nose.
People can become stuck at any point in this cycle. Someone may habitually breathe through their nose all the time and be unable to become stimulated beyond this point. Some people may be perpetually sniffing, others may be stuck in a highly stimulated state with their nasal sinuses congested and breathing through their mouth. Others may be in a state of continual recovery, breathing in through their mouth and out through their nose but never quite recovering all the way back to relaxed nose breathing.
When people are stuck in one of these breathing patterns, their blood chemistry, hormone profile and emotional state on a deep level will also be stuck in the same state. Often this comes from our conscious or unconscious resistance to acting on the stimulation that we have received through our senses. Take for example the body that has smelt a tiger. It is going to become alert and want to get moving to run, fight, or establish safety in some way. If the mind tells the body to just relax, the body is likely to keep producing the hormones necessary for intense physical activity even while the mind suppresses that activity. The body will not process and use those hormones up until the mind allows it to take appropriate action to metabolize the hormones. The hormones will continue to circulate around the body perhaps long after the tiger is nowhere around until they are appropriately processed, and as a result the body will remain in its stimulated but not active state until then as well.
The best way to move past these sticking points is to cycle the body through its natural breathing stimulation cycle until it returns back to its resting breathing pattern of relaxed breathing in and out through the nose. Trying to force the body backwards through the cycle towards relaxation will just create further resistance until the hormones, blood chemistry and tension patterns relating to the stimulation are processed. This can only be done by going forwards through the cycle.
Exercise: The Breathing Stimulation Cycle
You can do this exercise in any position, lying down, sitting or standing; you can even do it while walking around or engaged in other activities. Begin by taking ten relaxed breaths in and out through your nose. Sniff ten times. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth ten times. Breathe in and out through your mouth ten times. Breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose ten times. Finally return to relaxed breathing in and out through your nose for at least ten breaths.
Repeat this cycle from one to five times.
The results of going through this cycle are truly remarkable. You will find that you breathe much slower and feel more relaxed after finishing the cycle. If you have longstanding stress or stimulation patterns in your body, do not expect them to disappear all at once, but each time you go through the cycle they will become less and less. Often when we have these patterns in our body for a long time they become invisible to us, we are just so used to them being there we hardly notice them at all. If this is the case for you, after practicing this exercise for awhile you may find yourself feeling unusually happy, calm, even blissful for no apparent reason. This is simply a normal state of functioning – it seems amazing to experience it when you have become used to a stressed state for a long time.
If you regularly have congested sinuses, you may find that these become more congested initially as you begin to practice this exercise as the body begins to process the tension patterns and to release and flush through the chemicals which have been causing this stimulation. If this is the case, just do a little of the exercise at a time and gradually the congestion should lessen.
This Week’s Practice Sessions
This week’s sessions are focused on practicing the breathing stimulation cycle.
- Balanced Breathing – 5 minutes
- Breathing Stimulation Cycle – as many times as is comfortable for you
- Balanced Breathing – 5 minutes