Out of all the primal inborn elements that we live with on a daily basis, none is more essential to our capacity for life, then the mighty and humble breath. Without food you can survive for weeks, without water only days, but without breath - you can live merely minutes; a few difficult, agonizing and painful minutes. There are many different techniques, protocols and tools at our disposal, that can assist us in our quest for wholeness and vitality, but breath work in its many manifestations - may be one of the most powerful. Its power has been utilized by practically every religious (in the form of chanting), trans-formative, shamanic, martial and psychosomatic path; there is no mistaking the usefulness of consciously working with the breath.
We are all born with the capacity for a full deep breath and a complete exhale; many aspects of stress, sitting and trauma can eventually remove this capacity. The abdomen and often even the diaphragm itself - will become tight and restricted, effectively preventing this full breath. The average person takes between 17,000 to 23,000 breaths in a day! Now imagine that every single one of those is restricted from being complete and true. It is like over eating a food which has no calories and no nutrition, starving- while in an abundance. When we inhale, the diaphragm, a large dome shaped muscle located underneath the lungs - moves downward (it also expands in other directions, but less so) and when we exhale, the stored elasticity, allows it move upwards compressing the lungs. This up and down motion has a side effect of massaging the organs in our visceral cavity, helping them function an their optimum.
The mechanical aspects though only touch the surface of what full and complete breathing can do your vitality and state of mind. To get a better grasp of what that means, it is necessary to understand certain aspects of our nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into three branches; the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze), the parasympathetic (rest and digest) and the enteric (gut based nervous system). This autonomic nervous system controls automatic functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, breath rate and digestion. Normally, these functions continue on without a need for us to focus on them. In this automation, there is a yin and yang, whereas the sympathetic nervous system excites and raises, the parasympathetic calms and lowers. The point here is that the breath gives us a direct route to the manipulation of these two broad and far-reaching polarities.
Many aspects of sub-optimal vitality can be traced back to an imbalance between these two branches of the nervous system. If we are constantly stressed then, our SNS (for short) is constantly in this low-level activation, which leaves us always "on" or idling. This low-level activation will cause us to have higher stress hormones, higher blood pressure, impaired digestion, immunity issues, chronic infections and fatigue. Whereas if there is too much PNS activation and not enough SNS tone, then you may be tired all the time, sleep long hours and not feel rested, not be able to deal with fast-paced situations well and feel like a "zombie". If you want to take an elemental approach, one is too much fire and the other is too much water. There are many ways to address this balance, but the breath is the cheapest, most innate and one of the most powerful.
The key to "knowing the breath" is to also understand that different activities require different breathing methods and there is no clear cut "this is the way". Knowing how the various aspects of the breath affect our system and using that knowledge in a variety of ways is the goal of this branch. In truth, having access to a full breath, as well many different techniques for various purposes is what is important. . This way you learn to work with this innate power house on an intuitive and organic level. By providing an alphabet of breathing, you can learn to express its potential by owning the ability to "write" with it as needed.