A few days ago I did a video interview with my friend Catherine Carrigan for the Natural Health Show, which airs on UK Health Radio in England. Catherine is a medical intuitive, healer, yoga instructor, and Amazon #1 Best Selling Author.
The title of our interview is “Change your breath. Change your brain.”

This was a great opportunity for me to revisit the subject of breathing and its importance in all that we do.

If you are currently breathing at all…Well Done! Continue! (If you are not, please reconsider.)

The good news for most of us is that we breathe between 15,000 and 30,000 times a day, mostly without thinking about it. It seems to go on even while we sleep. It is ordinarily handled by the autonomic nervous system, the part of the preconscious mind that deals with the more or less automatic functions of the body. I say “more or less automatic” because some of these functions, such as breathing and heart rate, can be controlled consciously to some degree.

I have mentioned the autonomic nervous system often in my writing, so I’ll only offer the nickel version here. The ANS is composed primarily two separate systems: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is the go-go-go mode. Whenever we want to DO something, the SNS kicks in. It also takes over when a stress response is activated, or when we move into the fight-flight-freeze mode. If when stay too long in the SNS without recharging our batteries, there can be mental and physical health problems.

The PNS is the “rest and digest” function. It recharges the batteries and allows the body to heal. Ideally, there is an easy give and take between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic, an interplay of the yin of the PNS with the yang of the SNS.

Most people have an overheated SNS which sometimes leads to the erroneous conclusion, “Parasympathetic good. Sympathetic bad.” No, you NEED both. In fact, each beat of your heart is regulated by these two. If the heart beats too fast, the PNS slows it down. If too slow, SNS speeds it up. Luckily, this is usually happening at a preconscious level, which frees your conscious mind for important stuff like, “Where did I leave my cell phone?” and, “Should I have white or red?” If you find your autonomic nervous system revving its engine at the stop light, stuck in the go-go-go mode, or hypervigilant to a debilitating degree, then get in line. You’re a member in a big club.

One of the easiest ways to bring your ANS into a dynamic balance is to take control of your breathing as often as possible. That means controlling the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a powerful muscle that forms a dome inside the lower part of your rib cage and extends down to the upper part of your abdomen. When we inhale, the diaphragm initiates the process by flattening downward into you belly and presses against your internal organs. This creates space for the lungs to expand downward and that pulls in air. Then the intercostal muscles expand the rib cage outward creating more space for lung capacity. During exhalation, the intercostals relax, the ribs return to their resting state, and the diaphragm returns to its dome shape.

How deeply we breathe when it’s done preconsciously, depends largely on the habits we have established over time. When the breath is shallow, the diaphragm hits that initial resistance of the organs in the belly and immediately triggers the intercostals to expand the chest. This is called thoracic breathing because most of the work is being done by the chest. Since it is shallow, it requires more breaths per minute to sustain you body activity. Like when we pant after sprinting for the bus. Shallow thoracic breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. It also stresses the body-mind by raising the existential question, “Where will my next breath come from?” If habitual, thoracic breathing leads to a stiffening of the diaphragm and chronic decrease in lung capacity.

Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing doesn’t stop when the diaphragm hits that initial resistance of the internal organs. Rather than immediately initiating movement by the intercostals and expanding the chest, the diaphragm continues to push down on the belly, causing it to expand outward. More space is created below the lungs by this movement allowing them to expand downward (inferiorly).

It’s better for most beginners to focus on abdominal breathing for a long time, since thoracic breathing has dominated for decades and it’s a tough habit to break. After abdominal breathing becomes easy and quasi-automatic, then you can integrate the two by first filling the belly and then expanding your lungs.

Abdominal breathing has the immediate effect of 2-3 times the air per breath, thereby demanding few breaths per minute. This signals the PNS to calm everything down, to relax, restore, digest, and heal. The repeated pressure on the internal organs acts as an internal massage on your gut, increasing blood flow and breaking up stagnation. The overall effect is to reduce the stress on the system and over time, and to reset your body-mind to a healthier state.

Of course, this requires conscious intervention in what is usually a preconscious activity. And to overcome the rigidity of a diaphragm muscle that has a grumpy contentment in its reduced range means overriding the discomfort and unpleasantness of having to work at something that usually takes care of itself. That means EFFORT, like any exercise. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Changing any longtime behavior requires persistence.

How do you know if your normal breathing is thoracic or abdominal? You may get a clue if you put one hand on your chest and one below your navel and breathe naturally. If the hand on your belly doesn’t rise and fall with your breath, that’s a pretty good clue.

Thoracic or Abdominal?

If neither produces much motion, you are probably not getting enough air per breath. (There are advanced breathing techniques that don’t fit these criteria, but they are not the subject of this essay.)

A simple way to explore and practice abdominal breathing is to lie down and place something on your belly–your hand, a book, a cell phone, whatever is convenient–and watch it rise and fall. To get more familiar with your diaphragm’s effect, first exhale completely and pull in your belly. Then when you are ready to inhale, use your diaphragm to fill your belly and raise the object. Once you reacquaint yourself with the action of this marvelous muscle, you can do use it more easily while standing, walking, running, singing, or just to feel good.


Use your diaphragm to lift your hand

And you WILL feel good. Each breath is a celebration of life. It is a reminder that you are ALIVE! That is not something to be taken for granted. Each time you breathe intentionally, you bring awareness to something that is ordinarily preconscious, and that opens the door to superconsciousness. This is why breath awareness and control is such a foundation for many meditation practices. And it is something you can do anytime.

And this is just the beginning of a conversation that has far-reaching implications.


But it’s a good start.

Here is contact information for Catherine Carrigan: 

Catherine Carrigan
Medical intuitive healer
Amazon number 1 bestselling author
Host of the Natural Healing Show for UK Health Radio
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