We can make it several weeks without food, several days without water, but only a few short minutes without air. Thanks to our autonomic nervous system, breathing takes place without us thinking about it. This system has two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is often known as our “fight or flight” response. It’s why we’re still here. Increasing our heart rate and dumping ample amounts of adrenaline into our bodies to run from a saber tooth tiger in days bygone. Reversely the parasympathetic nervous system, known as our “rest and digest” state, conserves energy and is where the body repairs itself and digests food easily. This is where our bodies are meant to spend a majority of the time.
As the industrialized world slowly took hold, we began to experience a new and different way of living then what our ancestors did. Specifically, the sympathetic state became more prolonged due to heavier workloads and financial worries. Not discerning the two, the same basic mechanisms engage meeting an upcoming deadline for work, or getting chased by a grizzly. At different levels of intensity of course, but the latter being how we were originally designed- with a few minutes of adrenaline followed by the parasympathetic system taking over shortly after Mr. Claws was out of sight. Enter today- cell phone plans, homeowners insurance, credit card airline miles, sitting on I-5 for two hours….. The question becomes then, are we evolving as we slowly take on more and more stress over longer periods of time? Or is our primal wiring still a bit confused about our relatively new way of going about things? It is estimated that more than 70% of diseases today are stress related.
The vagus nerve is one of twelve pairs of cranial nerves that start in our noggins. “Vaga” meaning to “wander,” it is the only one of the twelve to meander down through the lungs, piercing the diaphragm, running through many of the lower organs, monitoring our breathing and digestion. Fairly recent research has found 90% of serotonin, the feel good hormone, is manufactured in our gut. It is the vagus nerve that relays this information to our brains. Our breathing, along with our diets are directly tied to our mental, emotional, and physical well being.
I wanted to write about the breath and breathing since it is so important. Although it happens on its own, it’s that very reason making it so easy to take for granted. Sometimes it’s halfway through the day before I realize I haven’t taken a single deep breath. It’s also after a terrifying five seconds when I swallow something down the wrong tube do I remember…..Yes…. air is good thing. The core of yoga and meditation is centered around the breath. I once thought I would have to turn myself into a pretzel and chant in order to meditate. But it can be as simple as watching our breathing. This can be done in line at the grocery store, a thirty second break from the computer, or sitting at a stoplight. What is the simplest way we can pull back the reins on stress during the day? Three deep breaths. By focusing and breathing deep with our bellies, more air is drawn into our lungs, the vagus nerve gets massaged by the diaphragm, we become intimate with the present moment for but a few seconds, and the parasympathetic nervous system switches on. How cool is breathing?! Really cool.
“Be aware of your breathing as often as you are able, whenever you remember. Do that for one year, and it will be powerfully transformative. And it’s free.” -Eckhart Tolle