by Michael Ketterhagen
“The first step in reversing our chronic stress response
is to learn to breathe the way we were born to breathe.”
--Carrie Demers, M.D.,
Director of the Life Center at the Himalayan Institute
How were we “born to breathe?”
Effortlessly and seamlessly!
How do we know this?
Through watching a newborn lie in a crib while it is sleeping. Every time I got a chance to watch one of my grandchildren sleep in their crib, I would see his/her belly go up and down without any effort and seamlessly. This breathing was pure, unadulterated diaphragmatic breathing. It was a peaceful experience for me and certainly peaceful for my grandchild.
This pure diaphragmatic breathing is “the way we were born to breathe.” This is “stressless” breathing.
Why does that initial way of breathing change?
Our breath starts to change when our needs for affection, food, sleep and self-preservation are not met. We start to hold our breath or breathe in the chest preparing ourselves to fight for our rights to have affection (to be held by mom or dad), food, sleep (an unsettled stomach gives us colic) or protection from harm (our diapers need changing). We begin to learn the fight-flight mechanism which produces a strong, instantaneous flow of adrenaline in our bodies.
Every time our basic needs are not met we become more and more efficient at producing stress hormones in our body, setting up the “chronic stress response.” We get better and better at making ourselves full of stress and therefore full of anxiety and eventually all the physical and mental diseases that flow from our learned stress-filled life.
All we need do is re-learn our original pattern of breathing—seamless, effortless diaphragmatic breathing. When our body remembers that original pattern of breathing, we begin to move stress out of the body. When we remember seamless, effortless breathing, our inner healer is not distracted from bringing joy and deep health to our bodies and our minds.
One of Yoga’s focuses is to teach us to remember our seamless, effortless diaphragmatic breathing through one of its simplest postures, makarasana (crocodile pose). All we need do is daily, maybe three or four times a day, lie on our belly on the floor, with our arms crossed and put under our forehead, for 5-7 minutes. At first, it might be very challenging to breathe in that pose. But after persistent effort, we will begin to establish a smooth, continuous, even, deep and quiet breath. This is diaphragmatic breathing. This simple process, done daily, will begin to “reverse the chronic stress response” in our bodies and will begin to re-establish health for us.
Like I used to tell my university students, “Don’t believe what I say, try it out yourself and see if it is true. Be a scientist and experiment with this.” This daily effort might be a great way to prepare for Christmas. As Christians might say, “It might be a great practice to do daily during the Advent Christmas-preparation-season, instead of giving up candy.”