Breathing Life into your Health and Performance
Dr. Cale Copeland is a top rated chiropractor in Victoria, BC, Canada. He provided this article on conscious breathing. You can learn more by going to his website: https://www.vfchiro.com
Health started becoming really important to me as I hit my late teens. I think it's because I didn't have the greatest health and I wanted and hoped that would change. I decided to get my degree in Nursing after almost dying from an asthma attack in my first year of college. I've had asthma since I was a child and although it is now well controlled, I've had a few serious attacks that almost ended my life. Shortly after graduating from Nursing school I was struck by a vehicle at 50 km/hr while riding my bicycle. I suffered critical (many broken bones and multiple surgeries) injuries and again was lucky to be alive. I wasn't recovering well and eventually I sought out chiropractic care. Immediately after my first adjustment, I felt a big improvement and right away I knew that I wanted to be a chiropractor.
You may be wondering what breathing has to do with all this, but I'll get to that later. Chiropractic made a big difference to my health (it still does), and I started to regain strength and function and improve from where I had been before the accident. Today, some 20 years after that accident, I have no symptoms and it seems miraculous to me that I have no limitations to my mobility, am pain free, strong and healthier than I've ever been. I do not take this for granted and it is something I continue to work on daily. For instance, I see a chiropractor and acupuncturist for maintenance visits, I stretch daily and I use several mind/body tools daily as well. One of these mind/body tools I use is conscious breathing, a technique that I'll cover later in this article.
As I got older my fascination and passion for health and performance grew. I began to study what it was that made people heal, be strong and have great vitality. Initially, I was immature and naïve and I looked for quick fixes such as special foods or elixirs. Many of these foods and herbs are helpful to our health but they typically don't fix us after using them once. In fact, over my decades of helping myself and others regain vitality I've come to realize that there are no quick fixes. Health is known as the greatest of signs of wealth for a reason and it isn't easy to be healthy. I suppose if it was easy to be healthy, I may not have a job. Health impacts everything. It affects our relationships, mood, happiness, fulfillment, energy, career, finances and more. Becoming healthy and maintaining it takes some effort, but it is so worth it.
Slowly over decades of personal experience from reading lots of books/articles/papers, becoming a chiropractor and working with lots of people plus attending many seminars, it became clear to me that becoming healthy takes time, discipline, guidance, some luck and above all else consistency. Another surprising thing I learned was that good health was more than just diet and exercise. These tangible physical things are certainly integral to health, but there is often more to health than that. For instance, I've had many patients who on the outside appear fit and healthy. They have disciplined diets and exercise regimes but for some reason, they still struggle with wellbeing. I was one of those people.
I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I was stressed out. I was always in a rush and tried to pack as many things into a day as I could. All in an effort to be productive so that I could get it all done. I struggled to be present and listening to others was many times was almost non-existent for me because I was often preoccupied. On the outside, I looked healthy but inside I was in turmoil. We all have our own unique personality traits, but I know that for many of us stress plays a bigger factor than we may be aware with regards to our wellbeing. Several recent studies have confirmed that stress reduces healing capacity and immune function. Clinically and personally I also know this to be true.
This is where breathing comes in. It's not like I hadn't heard anything about breathing exercises before. It just never occurred to me that something so simple could impact health so profoundly. Please do not misinterpret what I say to think that physical tools such as exercise are not important because they are. But physical health for most isn't enough to have great health. I started to consider breathing as perhaps important after speaking with a high-level athlete. He explained that breathing was a significant contributor to his success. Suddenly I was paying attention. I value performance for myself and my patients and I know that good health equals good performance. After hearing that I was willing to try these simple breathing exercises he mentioned were so impactful for him and I noticed they made a difference almost right away.
I did these breathing exercises twice a day, and even after doing them for very brief periods, I felt calmer, more present was able to listen better and felt more able to connect and empathize with others. This was a revelation because I value and care for people and strengthening relationships is important to me. I was also slowing down, feeling less frantic and was able to make better decisions about where my energy and focus went. I felt less anxious and more in control of my emotions. It made me realize how sped up I had been, and I was happy to not be feeling that way as much. I must mention that before I started these breathing exercises, I was already starting to become more aware of stress and ways to reduce it such as meditation and reducing coffee intake.
How Breathing Affects Health
We know that being in a chronically stressed state has negative and wide-reaching repercussions of our health and performance: blood pressure and heart rate are elevated (1), the autonomic nerves, responsible for unconscious functions (like sweating and digestion) and certain hormones (such as adrenaline), get revved up, and even our mood can change. We don't have to be victims to stress though, because there are tools such as conscious breathing (CB) that we can use to reverse and prevent the damaging effects of how we react to life.
Conscious breathing (CB) also affects us on a physical level because it activates the diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm engages more strongly when we breathe abdominally and this pushes and moves abdominal organs downwards, effectively massaging them (2). This type of respiration also increases oxygen levels and stabilizes the autonomic nerves so that hormones, mood, digestion and blood pressure can function more normally.
Assess Your Respiration
I was initially surprised once I started to assess my breathing and that of my patients as well. I noticed that their breathing as well often lacked rhythm and was frequently very shallow. Try periodically paying attention to how you breathe. A good way to do this is to place a hand on your abdomen and chest and feel if it expands as you inhale and contracts as you exhale. Usually, if I'm not breathing properly, I feel tension in my body. I find that tension often quickly dissipates when I consciously breathe.
Conscious breathing (CB) is simple and that is part of its beauty. The hardest part is to remember to do it. I recommend at least twice a day checking in with yourself and practicing CB until you feel calm and centered. This might just be one cycle of inhalation (breathing in) and exhalation (breathing out). It's important to listen to your body because you may find that you need to do it for longer. Even though I suggest doing it twice a day don't hesitate to use it whenever you need. For example, good times to use CB are in times of stress, like before a job interview, an important presentation, a big game or simply when you're feeling wound up.
To do it, simply breathe in through your nose slowly and smoothly, gently filling your upper chest and abdomen, feeling the air as it passes into your body. Simultaneously breath into your collar bones or shoulders and your abdomen as if you were filling an innertube around your hips. This should create a feeling as if your spine is being gently lengthened. Then breath out through your nose slowly and smoothly feeling the air leave your body. Try extending the time it takes to exhale as this helps calm nerves. There is no need to hold your breath, and simply repeat CB until you feel calm and balanced. The beauty of CB is that you can do it anytime and anywhere and nobody needs to know you're even doing it.
Good luck and I hope you find it as helpful as I do.
Dr. Cale Copeland
1. Fischer, Naomi D.L. (Feb. 15, 2016). Stress raising your blood pressure? Take a deep breath. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/
2. Ludwig, Linda. (Feb. 28, 2005). Self-Care: Diaphragmatic Breathing. Massage Therapy Canada. Retrieved from https://www.massagetherapycanada.com/