Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life" Giovanni Papini
Breathing before the pandemic?
It was an afterthought for the fortunate ones, simply an act of our autonomic nervous system doing it's job without our even having to think about it. For others with vulnerable lungs, a precious gift where life is breathed in with every thoughtful breath.
Breathing our way through a pandemic has refocused our attention on our beautiful often fragile lungs. From the thought of Covid-19 being spread into our lungs or to others, to the frontline workers finding breathing challenging in protective gear to our holding our collective breath globally bracing for the impact of this disease.
We are more conscious of our breath than ever before. And in my humble opinion, there is always some good that comes from this.
So let's dive in and show you how breathing is a powerful tool in your covid-19 toolbox with these five strategies.
1) Bringing the breath back to 'front and centre':
As I mentioned earlier, the breath is controlled by your autonomic nervous system. When you are at rest, your body knows to slow the breathing without even thinking about it. Just as it does when you start to exercise, your heart rate increases, so too does the rate of your breath to keep up with the increase in demand for oxygen. Our bodies respond the same while under acute stress. When stress is prolonged (such as the times we find ourselves in now) our breathing lingers in this fight or flight mode with shallow, short breaths.
Bringing the breath back to front and centre simply means thinking about our breath and actively challenging that mindful breath. It means breathing through your nose, slowing your breath, breathing deeply and visualizing four corner breath.
Paying attention to breathing through your nose engages the lungs' filtration system by activating the little hairs that line the inside of your nasal passages. These small warriors are our first line of defense against foreign invaders.
In this time of uncertainty that we find ourselves in, our breathing becomes more shallow. Shallow breaths only stimulates the upper portion of your lungs so instead, place your hands on the sides of your rib cage and consciously breathe deeply into your hands. Visualize your lungs like a balloon that you are slowing filling up from top to bottom and side to side. These slow, deep breaths stimulate the nerves at the base of the lungs, activating the relaxation response.
Four corner breathing is a simple technique that you can use to not only stimulate our 'rest and digest' mode but in the age of covid-19, can actively lengthen and strengthen our lungs.
Sitting or lying down comfortably, visualize the outline of a book or a picture frame.
As you follow your eyes along the top edge of the book take a slow, deep breath in and count. When your eyes turn the corner and follow the book's edge down, hold your breath and count. When your eyes turn the corner again to follow the bottom edge, breathe out slowly and completely. Hold you breath one last time while your eyes follow the outside of the book up to the start point.
As you expand your lungs and your breathing practice, increase the amount of time that you inhale and hold your breath for. Eventually, the goal is to exhale twice as long as you inhale and to extend the length of time holding your breath.
Another technique to try with healthy lungs is to inhale fully through the nose, hold on top briefly and then before exhaling, try to take in one more breath...filling up those lungs completely.
Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present, I know this is a wonderful moment." Thich Nhat Hahn
Not only is laughter so therapeutic emotionally, it also serves the lungs beautifully. When you laugh, your lungs are rid of stale air and more oxygen can enter. This is because laughter helps to expand the alveoli in your lungs. ... Expanding these means that the area for oxygen exchange is bigger and more oxygen enters your lungs. In a time when we are trying to protect our lung output and functionality, laughter is a key component. This is why, now more then ever, we need to turn off the news and turn on a funny movie, to reconnect and laugh with friends (online), or get silly with the kids and grandkids.
3) Movement & Posture:
Body position can influence respiratory function. Changes in body position can alter the length of the respiratory muscles (the diaphragm and the muscles in between the ribs), thereby influencing its ability to generate tension.
Several studies have reported that a slumped posture or prolonged sitting significantly reduces lung capacity and expiratory flow, compared with a normal upright posture. We are living in a time where social isolation has seriously increased our cellphone and laptop use which ultimately increases our rounded forward posture even more.
So what's the moral of the story?
We've got to keep moving! Even patients with Covid-19 are being told to move their limbs, practice their breathing to help elongate those respiratory muscles. Roll your shoulders, open up your ribcage, lift your arms above your head, be mindful of your posture...all these movements count and have massive impact.
Singing in the car or in the shower is essentially a mindful way to breathe...without even having to think about it. The rhythmic breathing required in singing somewhat mimics the breath control practiced in mindfulness meditation. So let go of any inhibition and belt it out!
5) Getting outside for fresh air:
This is an obvious one but a simple walk outside can raise your immune system and your spirits. "Exercise leads to an increase in natural killer cells, neutrophils and monocytes, which ultimately increases immune function," Ather Ali, ND, MPH. If it is warm enough to do so where you live, take your shoes off and put your feet on the earth and reconnect.
As we metaphorically and physically hold our breath waiting for this pandemic to come to an end (and it will), take a deep breath and let that go. Soon enough our global community will exhale with a collective sigh of relief.