We all know breathing is vital for life, but the very fact we have to do it all the time means it is not something we often think much about doing. And for good reason; if we had to actively think about having to breathe in and then breathe out, and then breathe in again, and then breathe out again, and then breathe in again, and then breathe out again (you see where this is going....) we wouldn't get much done. Life would (breathe in) get pretty (breathe out) boring.
But sometimes, just sometimes, it's worth thinking a little more about breathing because its benefits go beyond just (just?!!) keeping us alive.
Despite the fact we can literally do it in our sleep, when we're asked to breathe consciously it can initially feel a little unfamiliar. For a beginner in one of our classes it is often the most complicated part of the whole session, perhaps because it is something we take completely for granted and never have the time or inclination to give much thought to. But give much thought to it we should....
When you breathe in, your diaphragm - which lies within the the bottom of the ribcage and is your primary breathing muscle - contracts and pulls downwards. This has the result of increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity and decreasing the pressure in the lungs, meaning that air is now free to rush in and inflate them until they resemble two small balloons. As we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes upwards into its dome shaped resting position, increasing the pressure in the thoracic (chest) cavity and thereby forcing air back out of the body. The simple movement of the diaphragm, as it descends and then rises with each breath cycle, has the pretty cool effect of 'massaging' the digestive system, thereby helping to keep your gut healthy and your digestive system happy.
When we breathe consciously, we can direct our breath into different areas of the body. Due to a range of different reasons (habit, posture, injury, stress, lack of awareness, to name a few) we may predominantly breathe into one area of the body and neglect other areas. The simple act of directing air to meet, for example, the chest, will have the effect of encouraging the muscles at the front of the chest to 'give' a little as the sternum (breast bone) rises and falls. We are very aware of the concept of tight hamstrings and the need to stretch them out, say, after a long run or a long car journey. The front of the chest, the sides of the ribcage, the abdominal cavity are no different - sometimes they need a little stretch and the simple act of directed breathing can help to relieve and release those sticky spots, even if we're unaware that they are there.
But taking time to think about your breath doesn't just work wonders for the body. As a means to relieve stress it is in a league of its own. Yes, breathing is brilliant for stress relief. Brilliant. Without doubt, we live in an age where stress levels are higher than ever before, even if stress is just born from being busy doing the things we love. How often do you switch off - reallllllllly switch off - and just, well...'be'? Breathing gives us a new focus, and, when practiced semi-regularly (say - at the beginning of a weekly reformer class, for example - ahem) it gives you the chance to screen out any distractions and just focus on you and you alone. You don't even have to go down the route of imagining lying on a sandy beach with the sun caressing your body while the birds cheap merrily overhead.....simply tuning in to your body will give you the ability to notice things you really wouldn't otherwise notice - and, when you are really able to relax into it, it gives you a wonderful tool for stepping out of your busy life for a moment or two whenever you feel things are getting a little too overwhelming.
So, in a nutshell, breathing practice is good for you - so good for you, in fact, that we do it at the beginning of every one of our classes. We absolutely believe that setting aside a small amount of time each day / week to switch off can be one of the best things you can ever do for your body and also your mind. Be good to yourself. Breathe.