Food, water and air.
We can survive weeks without food. We can survive days without water. But without air, minutes count.
We pay daily attention to our food and water but we tend to treat breathing as something we don’t need to put conscious thought to. We largely ignore our breathing, leaving it to operate automatically without a lot of thought from us. This can be a big mistake to our all-around health and, recent studies show, even correct posture and longevity.
Different ways and practices of conscious breathing exercises have been around for at least 6,000 years with about the same number of different methods, from Hatha Yoga to treatment for stress and anxiety to stimulation of the vagus nerve — which runs from our brain down both sides of our neck and connects to our gut. (This is why, for good health, it’s vital to keep the gut cleaned out. Think about it.)
Back in the ’60s, when I lived in the Berkshires, I had a good friend who had gone to Mexico for several weeks to complete her training and get her certification as a yoga instructor. One of the yoga exercises she taught was Hatha Yoga, a disciplined method of breathing. So we’d get together often for a session and then lunch. We’d sit, lotus style, and stare at candle flames and breath in, hold, breath out. This was my kind of yoga. I never did get into any of the pretzel, contortion yoga exercises. They never seemed a normal thing to put the body through.
When I was a kid up on the farm with Grampa and Grammie Tucker, people got their exercise and healthy oxygen through normal movements while gardening and all the other tasks and chores of daily living. And they were a lot healthier that people today.
I had never thought that learning “how to breathe” was something to actually “learn.” But I was, and still mostly am, a shallow breather, which means I don’t get full capacity of oxygen into my lungs. And like a lot of things I become interested in and do, I tend to move on to other interests for some time and then remember and pick them up again years later.
Like now. I just recently came across new studies of deep breathing and its effects on the vagus nerve, and the gut connection — which branches out to impact our heart, posture, and more. That is what I am interested in now as, after a long bout over last summer with a six-week battle with vertigo and following that, a six-week healing process with a compression fracture in two vertebrae in the L2 region of my spine from lifting something heavy the wrong way. During those weeks, I slipped into very poor posture as it was more comfortable to hunch over than stand up straight.
So now, I’m going to start breathing consciously again. One thing I did maintain all these years from the Hatha Yoga lessons was to be a nose breather. The nose is essential for more things than holding up our glasses. It’s designed to take in the air and filter, warm and cleanse the air before it goes into our throat and lungs. (It can also help with apnea.)
Most of the many different practices for correct breathing are very much alike. Take in slow, deep breaths through your nose, with your mouth shut, while expanding your lower rib cage like a bellows. This draws the air — oxygen — all the way down to the lower lobes. Hold your breath to a count of at least 4 and work up from there to 6 or 7. Then, slowly breathe out through your mouth, to the same count. Wait a few counts and repeat the process. This sends oxygen up to the brain and down through the vagus nerve to the gut, oxygenating the blood and other vital areas.
Of course, you won’t breathe this way constantly, but a few times throughout the day. You will find that you will automatically start breathing better regularly.
I’ve had a theory for some years, after reading and observing, that the main benefit from exercising, even just walking, is from the deeper breathing that exercising causes, pumping in the oxygen that comes with it. And, after our long winters where I don’t get in much walking, I have to start in all over again to gain back my walking times. And then it’s winter again.
So, I’m thinking, if I can sit here in my chair, along with walking around the house, and do the deep breathing exercises, I might start feeling stronger and walk up straighter while avoiding many of the other problems that can result from not taking in enough oxygen. And I don’t have to sit on the floor and stare at candle flames.
You’ve heard the advice also, when you get stressed out over something, “Take a walk.” That’s because you will be taking in more oxygen. More oxygen in the brain results in thinking better and calming down.
And that’s another plus in living in Maine. Clean air/oxygen. I’m thinking that taking deep breaths of air in, say, New York or Los Angeles, might not be all the healthy.
Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, is a Maine native and graduate of Belfast schools. She now lives in Morrill.