First, I want say that I am no expert on breathing techniques or mindfulness practices. I actually just adopted them into my life. But within the few weeks I have been meditating and doing breathing exercises, I have already felt tremendous positive changes. It’s not just me either. There seems to be a buzz about the benefits of breathing and mindfulness. Seriously, do a google search and you will get pages of mindfulness exercises, meditation tips, and breathing techniques. So, why is it that habits widely practiced in the first century are getting so much attention in the new millennium?
The Biology of Breathing
It all starts with the diaphragm which is the dome-shaped muscle under your lungs that rises and falls as you breathe. When you inhale deeply the diaphragm presses down, your stomach pooches out, and your lungs expand pulling in air and oxygenating your blood. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing activates the relaxation response by supplying an excess of oxygen and creating a reserve of energy in the body’s tissues. When needed, the body can draw upon the excess in rich fuel, and as the body senses this energy reserve it begins to relax.
The Psychology of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is most commonly associated with meditation practices, however there are an amazing variety of mindfulness techniques. Over the past few years, researchers have found mindfulness practices to have several neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume, to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain, to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. The effects of mindfulness have even been shown to rival anti-depressants for depression and anxiety.
Committing to a breathing or mindfulness practice once a day is a great way to set aside time for self-care. I find that it is often the only time during the day that I allow myself to focus on my own feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Now that I meditate in the morning, I feel more focused and energized during the day, while my breathing exercises keep me relaxed in the evening. Instead of being anxious about things that are out of my control, I begin to feel more focused, confident and capable.