You may have noticed that in addition to a common theme of inventions or bright ideas that greatly impacted all of mankind, the epiphany posts have also included ways we can all better ourselves and our world…without costing any money. Many of them were based upon bright ideas born out of necessity and others due to curiosity. Today’s bright idea is probably the oldest, based upon man’s anatomy. It gave rise to the practice of meditation but actually it all begins with the first signs of life – the breath of life.
According to mental health writer and activist Therese Borchard, shallow breathing contributes to panic and anxiety. There are basic automatic functions that occur within the human body. These include cardiovascular systems, digestive processes, hormonal and glandular events, and immune defenses. Breathing deeply, however, triggers our parasympathetic nervous system or PNS which is responsible for activities when our body is at ease. It is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response we’ve discussed previously. The PNS is the calmer response to events. By breathing deeply, we will react in a calmer manner. The changes in our breathing send messages to our brains and that results in a more controlled response and calm demeanor. The University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center explains it this way: “Diaphragmatic breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximizing the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the ‘Fight or Flight’ response and triggering the body’s normal relaxation response.”
In their book “The Healing Power of the Breath”, Patricia Gerberg, M.D. and Richard Brown, M.D. discuss several types of deep breathing. Coherent breathing involves breathing five breaths per minute. This maximizes the heart rate and leads not only to a stronger stress response but also a stronger cardiovascular system. Resistance breathing creates resistance to one’s flow of air. The easiest example is to breathe out of the nose but other resistance breathing methods include hissing through clenched teeth, tightening the throat muscles, breathing through a straw or through pursed lips. It is important to note the point of this type of breathing is resistance and not to obstruct completely the flow of air. Another example of resistance breathing is the chanting often found in meditation. One breathing technique mentioned in the book is called breath moving. A bit of imagination is needed but this actually helps block the outside world and enables deep breathing and meditation. Breath moving is as simple as imagining your breath moving around your body: Inhaling breath to the top of your head; exhaling breath to the base of your spine. According to Gerberg and Brown, breath moving was first introduced by Russian Orthodox Hesychast monks in the eleventh century.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also a form of deep breathing. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine states that “12.7 percent of American adults [have] used deep-breathing exercises… for health purposes.” However, their definition of deep breathing does not include specifically the diaphragm. “Deep breathing involves slow and deep inhalation through the nose, usually to a count of 10, followed by slow and complete exhalation for a similar count. The process may be repeated 5 to 10 times, several times a day.”
The diaphragm is a muscle which is located between the chest cavity and stomach cavity, running horizontally. There are two types of breathing – shallow and deep. Breathing with higher lung expansion results in taking in less air. This is considered shallow breathing and it is the type of breathing most of us use when speaking or doing daily activities. Deep breathing is characterized by using the diaphragm and involves expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest. Most musicians, wind players and vocalists employ deep breathing for producing their musical sound.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” Deliberate, deep, conscious breathing has long been a staple of spiritual communities. Discussed even before writings discovered in fifth and sixth century BCE that reference it, deep breathing or meditation was practiced. Some even believed it to be one of the final stages of human evolution. Philo of Alexandria in 20 BCE composed a set of spiritual exercises that included deep breathing and focused concentration which led to meditation developed by Plotinus by the third century ACE.
Meditative practices vary widely based upon the ethnicity, culture, and spirituality and/or religion. The Pali Canon considered Buddhist meditation a necessary step for salvation and a meditation hall opened in Singapore in 653 ACE. In the eighth or ninth centuries, Dhikr, an Islamic practice, advocated reciting the ninety-nine names of God and three centuries later Sufism meditation techniques included measured breathing and repetition of certain words considered holy. The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”, is considered an important part of meditation in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
What we do every minute of every day should become an epiphany for us – a light bulb “aha” moment. Simply by breathing deeply, we can regain control of a situation that has thrown us into a panic or caused us immediate and intense stress. Taking a deep breath, counting to five, slowly exhaling to repeat again tells our brain we need to relax and regain control.
Indian spiritual teacher Osho described this wonderful epiphany of breathing awaiting us all in this manner. “I’m simply saying that there is a way to be sane. I’m saying that you can get rid of all this insanity created by the past in you. Just by being a simple witness of your thought processes. It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.”
Osho continues: “It takes a little time to create a gap between the witness and the mind. Once the gap is there, you are in for a great surprise, that you are not the mind, that you are the witness, a watcher.
And this process of watching is the very alchemy of real religion. Because as you become more and more deeply rooted in witnessing, thoughts start disappearing. That’s the moment of enlightenment. That is the moment that you become for the first time an unconditioned, sane, really free human being.”
The dream of all people is to be a free being in their own right. Breathing, really giving it our focus and effort, using our diaphragm and taking in air that activates the PNS system, the balancing portion of our brain, can help make that happen. Who knew the breathing of the ages could also be an epiphany for us living the present, preparing and trying to ensure a brighter future? Yoga master Amit Ray explains: “If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”