Trudi Bryant, Assistant Principal, The Gateway Academy
Over the past year, the idea of breathing has elevated in status from something that we biologically do, to something that we could quite easily lose.
When I first discussed writing about breathing, my colleagues unanimously retorted with a sceptical; “what the thing we just do every day?” and this is the reaction I would expect. Breathing is a process that sits at the literal core of our being. Without respiration we fail to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen and then if this situation continues we will ultimately expire.
There are of course people who are fundamentally more aware of their breathing than others; for example, in normal life we would find: swimmers, singers, musicians, athletes and others to have a very good control of their breathing and understand that their breathing changes their performance. However, we have also all seen (and maybe experienced) the slow exhale. That slow breath of an athlete about to run the 100m or the surgeon about to make their first incision, the teacher about to enter that classroom. That slow breath serves the wider purpose that I think is interesting to us as educators and could be really useful to those we educate.
When breathing goes rogue
How many of us think of our breathing as something that is an unconscious process, it is controlled by our medulla oblongata. If we don’t think about it, it still happens and so we hand over control of this process to our unconscious brain. So why do we “forget” how to breathe?
So what we know is that when all other medical reasons have been ruled out, the main cause of shortness of breath is anxiety. Plain and simple, when stress gets too much, our unconscious brain messes with our breathing. Just when we need a system that is fully functioning, it starts to go rogue. This shortness of breath in itself isn’t of any medical concern; however, left unchecked it can lead to panic attacks or worse. When we realise that this is all connected to the body's fight or flight system, we can appreciate the biology of sending oxygen to our muscles in preparation to run or defend ourselves. Unfortunately, the object of this fear lies in our own minds and is of our own creation. We no longer need the muscles to run and this prehistoric process leaves us slacked jawed and gasping for air. Remember if we feel this when we are stressed or anxious, we definitely have children and young adults sitting in front of us who are experiencing the same thing.
Is there a better way?
When I started to look into the whole breathing arena, I was shocked at the amount of experts there are in this subject. Everyone from professors to surgeons, breathing gurus to sleep experts; all exclaiming the benefits of correct breathing and the health benefits it can bring. They talk about monks who can control their temperature through breathing (Tibetan monks who can raise their body temperature by 11 degrees whilst sitting in the snow); about free divers who can control their breathing for 8 minutes underwater. These are superhuman feats, but how about if we could take a small part of their practice and put it in our own everyday life.?
How our faces forgot to breathe
Crooked teeth, sinusitis and snoring; these are just a few of the poor changes our faces have undergone to accommodate our love of breathing through our mouths. If we actually stop and focus on how we are breathing we would find that often we are breathing through our mouths. So why would we want to breathe through our noses when breathing through our mouths is easy and feels like it is actually doing a better job?
So what can we do? My first exploration of this question is to start a personal journey to explore the benefits of meditation.
I have explored lots of different types of meditation, but they all fundamentally do one thing; they give us control back over our own breath.
Here are some of the different types of meditation that I have been exploring and would encourage you to take a look and see if they could make a difference in your own life.
Meditation is an ancient tradition that is still practised in cultures all over the world and as the yoga movement has become more popular, has become a common development in the UK. It is designed to create a sense of calm and inner harmony and in today’s teaching world, who could say no to that? The practice has ties to many different religious teachings but it is less about faith and more about altering consciousness, finding awareness and achieving peace.
The different types of meditation
1. Mindfulness – you pay attention to your thoughts as they pass through your mind, you don’t judge them but simply observe them. This takes concentration and you can focus on your breath or an object while you observe any sensations, thoughts or feelings.
2. Spiritual – Based on religious practices from religions such as Hinduism, Daoism and Christianity. Oils and incense are often used to heighten the experience. This is good for those who are looking for a spiritual connection and thrive in silence.
3. Focused – this can use an object such as a candle or beads to focus your attention as you concentrate on your breathing.
4. Movement – this has its roots in yoga where breathing and posing are combined. It can however be combined with other movement such as walking, running or even gardening. This is good for people who find peace in movement.
5. Mantra – This uses a repetitive sound to clear the mind or it can use a phrase to keep you focused on your breathing. This can help if your mind wanders while you are breathing.
6. Transcendental – uses 15-20 minutes of silent meditation with the aim to reach a higher state of consciousness and awareness and a better connection with the world.
7. Progressive – This scans your body and actively tightens and loosens muscle groups and can be very beneficial in unwinding before sleep.
8. Loving Kindness – This is used to strengthen feelings of compassion, kindness and acceptance towards oneself and others. It involves opening the mind to receive love from others and sending out these wishes to others. It can be good for those who are holding resentment towards others.
9. Visualisation – this involves visualising goals and using all 5 senses to promote inner peace.
As a final note, it is often said that you should spend 20 minutes in purposeful meditation every day unless you are too busy and then you should spend an hour. Meditation is a very personal journey and one that for some may seem purposeless or a waste of time. However from a basic biological function, time spent every day re-learning how to breathe effectively will ultimately benefit everyone and a little self-care is never a bad thing.