Welcome to article number five on longevity. I wrote a series on the topic ten years ago and I felt it was time to revisit it because the world needs a dose of positivity and hope. Not only is it possible to live longer, it’s possible to want to live longer despite the perpetual messages of doom and gloom we’re bombarded with.
In the first article I explained why we must start with living for now and loving life. In the second I discussed the value of working, stretching, and relaxing all parts of ourselves (both body and mind). In the third we explored the incredible healing (and playful) potential of dance. In the fourth, we looked at the impact of media on our health and the importance of being discriminating in our media consumption and taking regular media fasts. You can read these articles on our site. Let’s continue.
#5: Bring Consciousness to Your Breathing
The quality of our breathing can have a profound effect on all aspects of our health. Deep, full breaths calm the mind, massage the internal organs, promote digestion, improve oxygenation of our tissues, bring us into the present moment, and facilitate the release of thoughts and emotions.
The first thing I tell someone suffering from stress or anxiety is to slow down and deepen their breathing, specifically lengthening the exhale. The first thing I tell someone who feels overwhelmed, distracted, or unable to remain rooted in the present is to bring more awareness to their breathing.
The mind follows the breath. This means that shallow, rapid breathing goes along with shallow, rapid, anxious thoughts. By “shallow thoughts” I mean those emanating from most simplistic mechanisms of our being – those concerned with mere survival. You may argue, “These aren’t survival thoughts; they’re thoughts about making my deadline, paying my bills, and avoiding COVID.” But in 2020 that’s what survival thoughts look like, especially when accompanied by fear.
Slowing and deepening the breath slows down the mind and draws our consciousness deeper into the ocean of our being – into the stillness beneath the choppy waves that tend to monopolize our attention. Every breath stands to be a simple, elegant (and rather brief) meditation session. Giving the whole of your attention to a single inhalation and exhalation can profoundly change your consciousness and physical experience. Pain can be alleviated. Perspective can broaden. Point of view can shift. Burdens can be relinquished.
Our lungs inflate and deflate through the action of the diaphragm, the muscle that forms the floor of the space enclosed by the ribcage. When relaxed, it forms a high dome like an umbrella, shrinking the space above it and emptying the lungs. When it contracts, it drops and flattens, enlarging the thoracic space and causing the lungs to fill up. Because both the heart and diaphragm do their work automatically, presiding over the filling and emptying of live-giving chambers, the diaphragm has been called “the second heart.”
The rising and sinking of the diaphragm takes numerous organs up and down all day. Shallow breathing makes for a boring ride – there’s barely any movement at all. Deep breathing, through which you should feel the belly expand (because the fully flattened diaphragm pushes down on the abdominal contents), is much more fun for your organs 😉, besides being relaxing and energizing.
Virtually always, except when eating or talking, the breath should enter through the nose. The nose is considered to belong to the lung system in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The lung warms and filters incoming air. It also adds a special treat from the paranasal sinuses – nitric oxide, a gas which opens our blood vessels and improves blood flow. In contrast, mouth breathing tends to promote poor concentration, poor sleep, dental problems, and begets more mouth breathing. Try to breathe through your nose whenever possible – even while sleeping and during vigorous exercise. Also, humming increases nasal nitric oxide production! And it’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re humming.
Besides how you breathe, what you’re breathing matters: clean, fresh, unpolluted air can be powerful medicine. If you don’t live in a place with good air, consider a good air filter, get your ducts cleaned, avoid household chemicals, use no-VOC paints, get houseplants, and take trips out into the woods.
You probably don’t need to be convinced that the breath is connected to life, but the connection is deeper than we may appreciate. Many languages have words that mean both breath and life, spirit, or God. These include the Sanskrit term Prana, the Chinese Qi, Greek Pneuma, and the Hebrew Neshama.
Similarly, many cultures have names for the Divine that parallel the sound of the breath. One is the Jewish Yahweh, sometimes referred to as the “unpronounceable name of God” which is uttered every time we draw the Universe into ourselves (“yahhhhhhh…”) and then release ourselves into it (“wehhhhhh…”). We literally exchange our own atoms with those of everyone else in each breath.
It’s a similar case with the Hindu Soham, which literally means “I am He/She/That” (or “I am one with the Universe”), also said to convey the inhale (“soooooo…”) and exhale (“hummmm…”). Soham is often inverted to form Hamsa (“The Universe/Divine is one with me”) and carried on the inhale as “hummm…” and the exhale as “saaahhh…” If this idea resonates with you, it can add an additional reward to giving your attention to the breath.