Yesterday (September 19, 2020), I walked outside with my dogs for only the third time in 14 days. For the first time in those two weeks, I felt as though I could breathe. I savored the sweet, fresh, cedar-saturated air as it flowed into my nose, enjoyed its coolness on my nostrils, and sent a prayer of gratitude to the universe for gifting rain to wash out the wildfire smoke in my corner of the Pacific Northwest.
Shadowing the Lungs
Many of us in the Pacific Northwest have been unable to breathe well over these last few weeks of wildfire smoke. For some, enduring this smoke has been unpleasant, while for others—those with pre-existing respiratory diseases, the first responders exposed to smoke on the front lines who are battling wildfires—it is life-threatening. The visible presence of wildfire smoke, captured in personal images posted on social media and chronicled by photo journalists in the news, is shadowed by the insidious things we cannot see. Like the microscopic particulates that can make their way into and damage the linings of our lungs, whether we feel them there or not, and that contribute to airway inflammation. Emerging evidence suggests that wildfire smoke particulates also impair the immune response and may contribute to cardiovascular and neurological conditions (e.g., stroke).
Beyond wildfire smoke, there’s a host of other factors that limit our individual and collective capacity to breathe well. Many of us in the United States and, indeed, other parts of the world, have been unable to breathe well this year as cities churn, air and water pollution reaches ever climbing heights, and people of color continue to experience symbolic and material violence.
Many of Us Do Not Breathe Well
Breathing well is vital to existence. In the most obvious of ways, breathing initiates a gaseous exchange that occurs in the body approximately every 3.3 seconds and transforms myriad life-giving molecules into the stuff of life—bones, muscle, blood, brain, organs.
But many of us do not breath well. We stay hunched, daily, over computers or steering wheels. We wear clothes that restrict the breath (for many, jeans are the 21st century equivalent of corsets) or constrain the female body by encouraging women to hold in our stomachs and make them appear “flat.” We hold our breaths (and who among us is not holding our breath in this moment of political, cultural, and social transformation?). We take in shallow, limited breaths or breath in reverse—pulling in the diaphragm on the inhale versus puffing out the belly. We under- or over-breath. These disordered breathing modalities may also be driven by trauma, dysfunctional lifestyles, dysfunctional nasal anatomy, or underlying disease, and can, in turn, lead to or exacerbate a range of conditions such as depression, insomnia, headache, and anxiety.
In contrast, it seems breathing well—slowing down the breath, engaging the diaphragm—helps to lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, even out intense emotions, and improve cognitive function. And I say “it seems” because although there is considerable experiential data on the benefits of breathing well, as yet the clinical research is limited. But this is changing, and the research community is beginning to acknowledge the need for further research into the benefit of techniques that support breathing well.
Wake Up Your Diaphragm
Breathing well is simple but not necessarily easy. We need to turn our focus from the external muscles involved in breathing to the most important muscle of all, the diaphragm. This internal muscle sits beneath the lungs like an umbrella, pushing down into the abdominal organs during inhalation and lifting up toward the lungs again on exhalation. For many of us, the diaphragm is sleeping, and we need to wake it up through focused, consistent practice.
Fortunately we live at a time when research on breathing well is growing and there are multiple resources that offer accessible practices to help us relearn how to breathe. My own relearning over the last decade or so has been a revelation, providing a gateway to calm that I can return to when life gets tricky.
And in this moment of collective breath-holding, I return to the gateway constantly, starting with this breath. And this one.
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