In Sotai there are five factors that we have control over for maintaining our health. These factors include breathing, consumption, thinking, movement, and environment. In this article we will be discussing breathing and how we can use it to regulate our stress levels, improve the restoration and growth of our bodies, and build strength and resilience.
Breathing is easily the most immediate and available factor related to maintaining internal balance that we have control over. Just by taking a few long breaths you can surely feel the relaxing effect it has on the whole body. Long diaphragmatic breaths stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the greatest regulator of your autonomic nervous system.
Your autonomic nervous system is what determines whether you are in a fight or flight response, or a rest and digest response. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, your cortisol levels shoot up as you become prepared to fight or run for your life. Unfortunately, the social stresses of modern life also trigger that response.
Don’t get me wrong, you probably want that signal to fire when a real emergency kicks off, but that emergency in our natural environment would last a short duration until the threat is gone. In modern life, our social situations and stresses can keep us locked in that state. This can suspend or delay our natural healing ability, growth, and internal balance regulation.
As an example in animals, it has been observed that when a young buck grows up in an environment full of constant threats, the growth of their antlers are often stunted. They are always having their sympathetic nervous system stimulated and not spending enough time in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode where growth happens.
For us, the healing and detoxification of our internal organs, our physical growth and development, and mental stress are all deeply affected by this balance. In our society for the most-part, our sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated, and we need to do what we can to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing is our most powerful tool to bring this relationship back into balance.
The vagus nerve is responsible largely for regulating your parasympathetic nervous system, and quieting the sympathetic nervous response. It’s through the stimulation of this nerve that diaphragmatic breathing is so beneficial.
The vagus nerve is stimulated when you breathe with your diaphragm. Short shallow breaths tend to expand your rib cage and collar bone, whereas deeper breaths tend to expand your belly by contracting your diaphragm. When I say a deep breath, I mean a breath that expands the depths of your lungs, not a big full breath. Big forced breaths cause overbreathing, which is just as problematic as shallow breathing.
A good deep breath should be long in duration, silent, and without strain or a feeling of forcing the air in or out. A healthy breathing pattern involves 5-6 breaths per minute, that’s about 5 second in and 5 seconds out. If you can hear your own breath it’s too much force. Ultimately you should not even feel your breath. If you can maintain a breath rate without feeling a strong desire to take bigger breaths, your breathing pattern is probably pretty healthy.
Whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth is another very important consideration. Nasal breathing encourages diaphragmatic breathing. To open the nasal passageways and sinuses, the head, neck and shoulders are encouraged to remain relaxed, the diaphragm expands down into the belly, and good postural alignment is maintains. Mouth breathing causes the head to tilt back, neck to slump forward, and the shoulders to rise up toward the ears. Mouth breathing tends to be shallow and nasal breathing encourages deeper breathing automatically. The point here is that mouth breathing even makes it very difficult to maintain good postural alignment.
Nasal breathing also opens the paranasal sinuses which produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, which means it increases the oxygen carrying capacity of blood cells. The nose and sinuses are also designed to warm and moisturize the air you breathe, as well as filter any harmful particles. This makes us more resistant to infections and strengthens our immune systems.
Mouth breathing dries the mouth and throat, breaking the saliva barrier that protects us from infection. It also lacks the filtration mechanism and nitric oxide production that benefits nasal breathing.
Our teeth are meant to be lightly touching with our tongue pressed up against the roof of the mouth just behind the upper teeth. This posture is natural when we breathe nasally, but mouth breathing involves letting our jaws hang down with the tongue just sitting loosely in our mouths. Spending too much time in this position actually changes the shape of your bone structure. I don’t know if you have experienced this, but I notice that my upper and lower jaw don’t quite meet up the same if I fall asleep sitting upright for an hour and wake up with my mouth wide open. It takes 10 minutes or so to adjust after that.
For children in their developmental phase, a habit of mouth breathing will cause their teeth to crowd, and their nasal passageways and sinuses to narrow, which often leads to difficulty even breathing through the nose. The very shape of their face and nose will change, growing longer, and narrower with uneven nostril sizes. Before a child reaches adulthood, they can reverse these deformities by instilling nasal breathing habits in their daily lives. Humans naturally should not need orthodontic intervention, and most indigenous tribes that to this day maintain a natural lifestyle have immaculate teeth a facial bone-structure.
Mouth breathing is for emergencies only. We should be mindful not only about nasal breathing during rest, but also while talking, eating, sleeping, and even exercising. The easiest way to replace your bad habits is to develop a habit of checking in throughout the day during each of these activities. The easiest to start is to notice when you are eating, talking, and resting whether you are breathing through your nose, and when resting, also the posture of your jaw and tongue.
Placing a piece of medical tape over your lips while you sleep is the easiest way to ensure nasal breathing during sleep. As for exercise, nasal breathing during low intensity activities is where to start, then you can gradually integrate it into higher intensity activities. The goal is to replace your mouth breathing habits with nose breathing. If you are saying “I don’t breathe through my mouth” I guarantee that you are, you just don’t notice. Many people breathe through their nose at rest, but try to tune in while explaining something in a conversation and you’ll surely catch yourself breathing through your mouth in an effort to rush your breath to avoid being interrupted, for example.
In summary, how to breathe involves long, silent, non-strenuous breaths, ideally at a rate of 5-6 breaths per minute. Breathing should involve expanding the abdomen as a result of the expansion of the diaphragm, rather than raising the shoulders to expand the upper portion of the lungs. Breathing should be through the nose, with the jaws closed, teeth lightly touching, and the tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth just behind the upper teeth.