Let’s take a quick trip back in time. Four years ago, we looked at the importance of breathing patterns in our 2016 presidential candidates in this article. We dissected the distinction between the two respiratory performance systems: relaxed, controlled breathing within the parasympathetic nervous system, and short, sharp breathing within the sympathetic nervous system. Now four years later, we are faced with another election stitched with heavy threads of uncertainty - a controversial period of time in the midst of a global pandemic.
Having a direct affect on the respiratory system, COVID-19 has made many of us realize that we often take breathing for granted. With the rise of COVID cases, our new reality of working from home, and the accumulated stress felt anticipating the upcoming fate of the United States, focus on the breath has never been so vital. But why does breathing play such a crucial role in our physical and mental health during turbulent times, and how can we use our breath as a powerful tool? Let’s break it down.
Beyond the lungs.
While we rightfully tend to associate breathing with the respiratory system, the breath is also a key player in our lymphatic, musculoskeletal, nervous, and immune systems. Anxiety, COVID, and economic and political ambiguity can greatly contribute to compromising the immune system - the body’s first line of defense. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet and getting plenty of sleep, there are important proactive measures we can take to support our immune system - measures involving breath and movement.
To gain a deeper understanding of how breath supports our body’s systems, let’s first look at a bacteria-fighting fluid called lymph. Lymph is the main component in an extensive drainage system used to protect the body against infection. The lymphatic system not only removes excess fluid from the body’s tissues, but also produces key immune cells. When lymph fluid does not drain properly, it builds up in the tissues causing inflammation in the body.
Breathing plays an essential role in supporting the lymph to boost the immune system. Those relaxed and controlled breaths of our parasympathetic nervous system engage the diaphragm which is used to pump lymph throughout the body. Movement is the second key component to effectively mobilize the lymphatic system. In addition to the diaphragm, our muscles act as pumps to aid in gravity and avoid toxic fluid buildup in the tissues. Without daily movement, the muscles grow tight, begin to constrict, and ultimately stop pushing the lymph down. Furthermore, muscle compression (aka feeling “stiff”) can negatively affect the mood and lead to stress and irritability - coming full circle and leading to the short and sharp breaths of the sympathetic nervous system.
Now that we understand breath on a deeper level, how can we work with it?
Move your body.
During the time of COVID, many of us have taken on roles of front line workers, or employees in a home office. In other words, the majority of the population has adapted to being on their feet most of the day, or slouching in front of a laptop. In either case, your body may have gotten used to being stagnant for longer periods of time. Try these tricks to ensure you are moving your body and allowing optimal flow of immune-supporting breath and lymph fluid.
Take breaks! If you are working from home, set a timer every 30 minutes as a reminder to stretch your body. Walk away from your screen and wake up your muscles. If you are standing in a front line position such as a grocery store clerk, prioritize stretch breaks in moments of downtime.
Normalize small movements. Moving your body does not have to equate to an hour long ashtanga practice. Simple movements can be just as effective in supporting the lymphatic system. Take five minutes to lay on the floor and put your legs up the wall, roll out your ankles under your desk, or stretch your arms to the sky while you put the morning kettle on.
Note your posture.
Are you currently sitting upright with your shoulders rolled back and down, or are you slumping over your screen? If you chose the latter, you are not alone.
We tend to have a natural habit of slouching forward when seated. While this negatively affects the spine, it also does a great deal of damage to our respiratory health. Think about it - when your neck is forward and down, this position constricts your diaphragm and blocks access to slow, deep belly breaths that calm the nervous system. As there is little resistance at the top of our lungs, it is easy to breathe here and takes less mental energy. However, when we limit deep breathing, we are telling our brain that we are in a constant mode of fight or flight. This short, shallow breathing has a place and time - it comes in handy when being chased by a lion, let’s say. However, normalizing this state makes the brain feel as if it constantly must respond to danger, which overworks the immune system. Mechanically speaking, when the diaphragm is compressed, we block the drainage process, and create a buildup of lymph. The simple fix? Lift your heart! It helps you sit up straight:)
Check in with your breath.
Try this simple exercise to see if you are in a state of fight or flight, or rest and digest:
Sit upright in your chair, with your feet flat on the floor.
Place one hand just below your collar bones, and your other hand on your solar plexus, or the soft space right below your sternum.
Without changing your breath, observe your hands and the rate at which they are moving.
Repeat for five rounds of breath.
Take note. When your bottom hand is slightly pulled in and your top hand is moving more, you are breathing from the limited space at the top of your lungs. When the top hand is slightly pulled in and the bottom hand is moving more, you are experiencing deep diaphragm breathing. Once you become in tune with your breath, you can consciously work to self calibrate.
Waving stress goodbye.
The more we understand the functionality of breath, the more we can see that nothing works in isolation. The nervous system dictates the respiratory system which aids the lymphatic system which supports the immune system (and so on and so forth). During times of heightened stress and uncertainty, understanding these connections becomes key in taking proactive steps to stay healthy.
While many things in 2020 have proven to be out of our control, the choice to tune into your mind and body remains free. By staying mindful and aware, your breath can be the common denominator in supporting mental and physical health this season.
To learn more, watch our webinar and 'Discover the Importance of the Breath / Lymphatic Connection to Keep the Immune System Healthy'. In this web class, Hayley is joined by Annelize Ferreira, YSS Faculty Member, Physiotherapist and Advanced Yoga Sports Coach™.