We breathe, on average, between 22,000 and 28,000 times a day. It's a basic action that most of us take for granted.
Provided all is well, our ever-faithful, ethereal friend, the breath, endures. And noticing its presence can have surprising effects on our health and happiness. Not only does every one of our body's trillions of cells need oxygen to survive and thrive, but the way we breathe can influence our immune function, stress levels, respiratory and emotional health.
It has been said that people who practice controlled breathing exercises can reduce discomfort from computer-related disorders including arm, wrist, and hand pain.
The breath can also help with grief relief, tone our abdominals and even help us to even burn fat more effectively. The key to obtaining such benefits lies not in breathing more, but in breathing better.
"Moving your diaphragm when you breathe communicates to every cell of your body that you are 'safe'," says biochemist and author, Dr Libby Weaver. "We burn fat effectively and are calm from this space."
This is because breathing well "stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system as opposed to the fight or flight response [which] turns off the digestive system," explains Simon Borg-Oliver, university lecturer and owner of Sydney's Yoga Synergy. "And when you breathe fully, using your diaphragm properly, you are massaging your abdominal organs and engaging your abdominal muscles."
We need both the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us 'rest and digest' and our sympathetic nervous system, which mobilises our 'fight or flight' stress response to real or perceived danger. "But, with our busy lives we often don't have enough opportunity to rest, relax and rejuvenate," says Dr Marc Cohen Professor of Complementary Medicine at RMIT University. "So the parasympathetic nervous system is often depleted... breathing techniques help to create balance."
The ability to regulate the body's stress response can have significant implications for our health. A longitudinal study just published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine by Penn State University has found how we manage stress on a daily basis predicts our future health. Those who were upset by daily stressors were more likely to develop chronic health problems 10 years down the track.
"The breath is one of the most obvious things you can do to transform your health," Cohen says.
It is also one of the most simple things we can do to transform our happiness, says Dr Ananda Bhavanani, chairman of the International Centre for Yoga Education, who teaches pranayama (breath extension) and vibrational breath therapy (which works with sound and breath to dilate blood vessels and enhance relaxation). "For simple happiness, joy and wisdom, we need integration on all levels - a holistic sense of wellbeing.
"Most people are breathing to about 10 per cent of their capacity. If we [breathed better] the cells in the body will work as they should and mental [and physical] capacity increases."
Our breath can also have a positive impact on our emotional health. "We have direct access to emotions by noticing how we are breathing - bringing awareness into the body," Dr Cohen says. "We can get stuck in emotion - fear is holding the breath and grief is chaotic breath. But, the breath is constantly moving. It's about letting go. Using the breath is a way to release and move through [those feelings]."
By using the breath in this way it can facilitate grief relief, says Antonio Sausys, author of upcoming Yoga for Grief Relief (to be released by New Harbinger in 2014). "When grieving, the 'step by step' nature of the process encourages patience and awareness, something that conscious breathing promotes," he says. "It also means that we are committing to letting go of everything that does not serve us, to fully exhale it all."
There may be many benefits to be had from the breath, but it is important to remember that breathing more does not mean breathing more efficiently.
"To restore the body's natural regulatory systems, breathing needs to be slow, deep, rhythmic and regular," says Dr Ananda.
"The biggest problem [when people start to work with the breath] is hyperventilation," says Dr Cohen. He also points out that to obtain the greatest benefits from the breath doesn't mean we have to be conscious of it 100 per cent of time.
"But, it is useful to have moments of awareness. Use it as a punctuation mark in a book. Have a moment of consciousness before you enter a room, at the traffic lights or before you are about to say something emotionally charged... you can respond with a more balanced nervous system... and make better decisions."
Dr Ananda suggests a simple four count breath through the nose for several minutes a couple of times a day. "Breathe into the diaphragmatic region. Start to breathe as low as you can (to the count of four) and breathe out, with control, to the count of four. Breathing out with control enhances parasympathetic control."
Antonio Sausys says a simple way to bring awareness to the breath is to place the thumbs on the back of the ribs, close to the spine, with the fingers facing forward following the curve of your ribs. "To feel your ribs' breath, allow the ribs (and therefore the hands) to expand, moving away from the centre of the body as you inhale, and letting the ribs contract as you exhale, pressing them slightly towards the centre of the body with your hands at the end of the exhalation."