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  • Writer's pictureSusie Lecomber

The Emotional Breath

Pilates is a mindful practice that can inform us of our physiological and emotional state. The simple act of observing how our body feels can make us calmer and reduce our stress levels. Breathing is one of the fundamental principles of Pilates, partly due to its relationship with the core but also because it can directly affect our mood.


In this blog, I want to show the relationship between the mind and body and how a

focused breath practice can benefit our emotions.


How does being unable to breathe make us feel physically and emotionally?


Short-term

I have clear childhood memories of playing in my parents' bed on Sunday mornings. While

they sipped their coffee and read the newspapers, my sister, brother and I would play around them. They had two single beds which were pushed together but not fixed, and my brother, who was four years my senior, would shove me down the space between them. On one particular morning, once he’d squeezed my little body through the gap, he stuffed pillows, a duvet, and himself on top of me. I must have been face-up because I remember the suffocating pressure of the feathers around my nose and mouth as I tried to breathe in. I screamed and struggled to escape as if my life depended on it. I thought I was going to die. Eventually, my father got annoyed with my over-acting and put a stop to my brother’s game. Once again, I was allowed to breathe. That was that. Within an hour or so, I had consigned this seemingly insignificant childhood event to memory, never expecting it to surface again.


Long-term

Many years later, I was at an osteopathic convention listening to a lecture on trauma. It was the very early days of my career and probably the first breathwork session I’d ever attended. We were instructed to close our eyes and breathe quietly through our nose—in for three and out for three, repeat. The first minute or two felt seamless. I noticed the cold air as it entered my nostrils and the much warmer air as it left me. I could feel the gentle rise and fall of my belly and the expansion and contraction of my ribcage. But then—the tiniest flicker of a memory. Was it a pillow over my face? I felt a sudden fluttering in my stomach. My nose was blocked. I fought desperately to increase my oxygen intake. But the faster I breathed, the more anxious I felt, until I was certain I was suffocating. Now I could almost feel the pillow over my face. My heart was pounding hard in my chest, the blood coursing loudly in my ears. I knew the world would end if I didn’t remove myself from this situation. My reaction was to open my eyes and my mouth and take a great gulp of air. This was enough to bring me back into the present. My heart slowed, and the fog inside my head began to clear until I could hear the words of the lecturer once more.



Understanding how we feel

This began my long journey to understand the relationship between the mind and body. Eventually, I understood that my physical reaction to that controlled breathing practice stemmed from a long-buried memory of when my brother played a simple trick on me. And so, I began to realise that life is full of events that might not be traumas as such, but nevertheless still leave behind a scar. Sometimes this scar is invisible to the naked eye, but it’s still there and still shapes us in some way. And whilst it isn’t possible to understand the effects of every event on our body, once we recognise what is happening, we can elicit some control over these emotions and their associated physical responses.



Understanding Our Automatic Nervous System

To understand how our emotions and physical responses relate, we must first understand our nervous system—particularly our automatic or autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS regulates involuntary physiological processes, such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sexual arousal, and breathing. To keep things simple, we can divide the ANS into two further systems.


The first, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), is often called the fight/flight system. It turns up the volume on our arousal, preparing us for action. It increases blood flow to the brain and muscles, directing it away from digestive, sexual, and immune organs. It opens our airways and increases our breathing rate to increase oxygenation. When our SNS works hard for us, we may feel alert, excited, anxious, or scared—but more about that later.


The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the other side of this coin. It is our rest and repair system. When our PNS controls the show, our breathing and heart rate are slow, and our blood pressure is low. Blood flows to our organs so that we can digest our food. The PNS controls our sexual drive and helps to keep us healthy. When the PNS works hard for us, we feel relaxed and sleep well.


Both these systems work together like two sides of a seesaw. As one is dialled up, the other is dampened down, depending on our needs.


The ANS is said to be automatic—we don’t consciously speed up or slow down our heart rate or dilate our pupils, but there are a few ways we can hack into this system, mainly through our breathing. It is generally accepted that our breathing rate and intensity indicate our emotions; if we feel calm, our breath is soft and slow to reflect this. If we are anxious or excited, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. It is also true, however, that we can alter those emotions by moderating our breathing, hacking the ‘output system’ to become an ‘input system’.


Our Clever Ancestors


The relationship between our body and mind is nothing new, and breathing as a practice is centuries old.


Pranayama is a slow, gentle breathing practice that dates back to ancient India and the origins of yoga. It was—and is still today—used to promote relaxation and mindfulness. A 2020 systematic review (Jayawardena et al.) looked at 13 studies into Pranayama and confirmed physiological and psychological benefits. It verifies what the yogis instinctively knew over a thousand years ago—mindful breathing up-regulates the PNS. As a result, it decreases stress and improves sleep and cognitive performance.



Ancient Tibetan Buddhist monks developed Tummo or ‘Inner Fire’ breathing as an accelerated route to enlightenment. This type of breathing practice focuses on stimulating the SNS. Research from 2015 by Amihai and Kozhevnikkov found that Tummo breathing increases a person's metabolism and alertness. This is a similar technique to that used by the TV personality Wim Hoff when teaching participants of his gameshow to withstand extreme and highly stressful conditions.



Memories, Breath and Emotions


In a 2016 study, Zelano et al. revealed that the rhythm of our breathing impacts our attention, emotional processing, and memory recall. This study found that nasal inhalation was associated with better memory recall. The amygdala and the hippocampus are two areas in the brain located behind the nose. They are linked to emotion, memory and smell, and react significantly to the rhythm of our breathing. This may be why my first experience of nasal breathing led me back to my childhood experience of feeling suffocated. More importantly, it highlights why slow nasal breathing may help us feel calm and focused.



Re-framing our Emotions


Now that we know the amygdala is stimulated by nasal breathing let's look at this area of the brain in more detail. The amygdala is our threat detection centre. Historically, it was known as the fight or flight centre, but our understanding is more nuanced now. In fact, we now know that stimulating it causes arousal; several factors then come into play to determine whether that arousal is interpreted as excitement, anxiety, or something else. Generally, the modern go-to emotion is anxiety, but the exciting thing about amygdala stimulation is that we can reframe the emotion it creates and alter its interpretation. So, what we might have interpreted as fear or anxiety, could be experienced as anticipation or excitement even. In addition, we now know that mindfulness, meditation, or focused breathing can actually alter the amygdala, helping us stay calmer and make better, more rational decisions.



Conclusion


I have overcome my childhood memory. I can close my eyes and breathe without those feelings of suffocation. Once I understood that my physical reactions were just a memory and not a reality, they had no power over me and shrunk away.

I use my Pilates and yoga practice to connect my mind and body and train my self-awareness. Throughout my practice, I ask myself how I feel. How is my breath? Have I tension, and can I release it? Am I aligned? Whilst this technique of self-enquiry helps me understand myself, it also quietens the chitter chatter inside my head. I feel more focused once my mind is less busy, and my breath reflects this calmer state. However, life’s stresses are sometimes overwhelming, and my ability to feel is compromised. In these situations, breathing is my saviour.


The next time you are feeling overwhelmed, try this simple exercise. Stop what you are doing and breathe. Breathe in through your nose for the count of three and breathe out through your nose for the count of three. Slow your breath and deepen it down to your belly. Repeat. Slowing down and controlling your breath will have a reciprocal effect on the rest of your nervous system. It will slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and focus your mind.


The breath and the mind are interrelated. Each affects the other. It is important to understand this special relationship and to know that with breathwork and body listening, we can focus the mind and release tension from the body, enabling a calmer, better version of ourselves.


1 Comment


Hattie Freeman
Hattie Freeman
Aug 31, 2023

Thank you for this post Susie. So many helpful insights and reminders here. Reframing the textbook physical sensations of anxiety (e.g. quickened heart rate) to be understood as healthy excitement is really powerful!

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