Breathe

AKA your own personal superpower.


Artist: Alessandro Gottardo

Very little attention is given to the powerful effects that the breath can have in the body. Recently the breath has been given a great deal more airtime (excuse the pun) than before, due to our current reality of COVID. But perhaps we are not highlighting just how powerful the the basic involuntary movement of air into and out of the body is and how harnessing it can produce remarkable benefits both mentally and physically.


Specifically, in relation to the stress response – another evolutionary gift just like the thinking mind (you are not your thoughts) - which in our hunter gatherer times was particularly useful for saving lives. Imagine yourself in the middle of the African Savannah (or Fynbos if you were a Cape region dwelling Neanderthal), and you hear a rustle in the bushes. The autonomic nervous system's stress response in the body has one of three options in response basically has one of three options here: fight, flee or freeze. The response in this example may well be the difference between avoiding being eaten by a ravenous lion and becoming its dinner. In such instances, the actual response happens entirely instinctively and there is not a lot of thought behind the choice, it is a survival instinct and a completely necessary one for the continuation of the species, and little old you in that moment.


Fast forward to our urban dwelling lifestyles (where you may need to deliberately seek out a lion if you wanted to be in any proximity at all). The autonomic nervous system has not been given the memo with regards to our very different circumstances and the survival mechanism which was so useful in days gone by remains fairly intact. The one half of the autonomic nervous system - the sympathetic nervous system - is as responsive as it ever was, but the body does not know that the extreme stress response is a reaction to the driver who just cut in front of you in traffic and not a lion hiding in the bushes ready to pounce. In both cases the physical response is the same: the body is flooded with cortisol, adrenaline pumps through your veins, your heart rate speeds up, breathing becomes shallow or even halted and all blood flow to the internal organs slows down so that vital oxygen can get to your muscles so that they have sufficient blood to run as fast as Cheslin Kolby on a good day, hopefully escaping your impending doom. Well, this may not be an entirely bad thing if it caused you to respond reflexively to avoid the driver cutting in, but this response can also be triggered by a rude email, someone jumping the queue in front of you at your favourite Donut stand or having an argument with your spouse.

So, no release of all that pent up stress response. It simply stays in the body. This scenario is repeated day in and day out and our body is flooded by stress related hormones until, just like the thinking mind, we simply do not know how to switch it all off.

Add to this, the fact that in the hunter gatherer days, you would have a good long walk (or run) home or stand on top of the nearest koppie and bang your chest, yelling to the sky to celebrate another day to live (to be fair, some of us here still enjoy a good koppie yell). In our urban context, we may stay in our car or go home to our easy chair to catch the next episode of Queens Gambit or perhaps proceed to the office to face any number of similar stressful situations. So, no release of all that pent up stress response. It simply stays in the body. This scenario is repeated day in and day out and our body is flooded by stress related hormones until, just like the thinking mind, we simply do not know how to switch it all off.


Enter the hero of the story. The other half of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system – the so called “rest and digest system” which is responsible for regulating these functions in the body: slowing down the heart rate, lowering the blood pressure and ensuring the vital organs get sufficient blood to carry on the normal day to day processing of blood and nutrients through the body. The ability to regulate the autonomic nervous system lies in your very own superpower… the breath - the only part of that system that we can have some conscious handle on. The in-breath taps in to the sympathetic nervous system, holding necessary tension, playing out with shallowness of breath when under stress. The out breath is directly linked to the parasympathetic nervous system - letting go of unnecessary tension, bringing calm, clarity and the ability to pause. It also offers us the gift of resetting the nervous system and very conveniently, this forms the basis of our meditation toolkit.

[The breath] also offers us the gift of resetting the nervous system and very conveniently, this forms the basis of our meditation toolkit.

… but wait, there’s more! You have this superpower at your disposal whenever you need it. The breath is always with you no matter where you are or what your current circumstances, you can simply don your cape of awareness and your superpower is at the entrance to your nostrils.


Why not give it a try: Bring all of your attention to the breath as it enters your nostrils, touches the back of your throat, expands the lungs and fills the belly. If you like you could place your hand on your belly to physically feel the movement of the breath. Notice the contraction of the belly and the lungs as the slightly warmer air leaves the nostrils on the exhale. Repeat this if you'd like, and notice how the breath starts to deepen, and the pulse slows with each deliberate breath.


NOTE: If you have trouble accessing your breath, the same exercise can be done by using the feet or the hands as the anchor for your attention, noticing the feeling of their contact with the surface on which they are resting and any sensations that may arise in that area.





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mindful wellbeing