Swimming – breathing and health

Breathing is the cornerstone of good health. When we inhale, we take in oxygen, which is not only essential to life but allows us to thrive and grow healthily. If this intake is obstructed we become prone to infection and illness. Exhalation too performs a vital function, expelling stale air from the lungs and toxins from the body. Weak exhalation retards this cleansing process: as well as leaving old air hanging around in our lungs it prevents the full and satisfying uptake of fresh air. As a result, the internal organs have to work harder to compensate for the lack of nourishing oxygen and to dissipate the toxic build-up. Common effects of shallow breathing habits include persistent skin conditions, an unhealthy complexion, poor digestion, and fatigue.

The pressures of modern life mean that most of us breathe in a less than efficient manner – too shallowly, unevenly, and with excessive effort. Breathing disorders such as asthma and emphysema are widespread among both adults and children. While these may be attributed to factors such as environmental pollution or diet, they are exacerbated by the effects of misuse. The improvement of overall use through the Alexander Technique (AT) can alleviate and sometimes eradicate such problems. The effect of good use is to enable a healthier way of breathing through freeing up the operation of the diaphragm and ribs. The numerous benefits include increased energy and endurance, reduced stress, and improved circulation. The steadier flow of oxygen to the brain also helps to regulate mental functioning. ‘Take a deep breath and count to ten’ is sometimes proposed to help us calm down and allow ourselves to think clearly. In a state of relaxation, such as when we are asleep, our breathing naturally tends to be slower and deeper. Regular, unimpeded breathing of this sort has a marked positive effect on our emotional and intellectual well-being.

Equally, we know that our manner of breathing can be negatively affected by strong emotions. Under conditions of stress we breathe faster and more shallowly -in our upper chest rather than deep into our lower torso. Several automatic responses combine to affect our breathing mechanisms when we feel afraid or under threat. Another is the involuntary tightening of the abdominal muscles which often accompanies the startle pattern. The contraction of these muscles, designed as a kind of armoring to help protect internal organs from physical attack, forces the breath to stay fixed in the chest instead of flowing deep into the lungs. Our nervous system also reacts to fear by triggering an increased flow of adrenalin into the bloodstream. Such reactions are characteristic of the fight-or-flight syndrome, the evolutionary mechanism which enables mammals to face a potential threat or danger with a burst of unaccustomed strength or agility.

Fight-or-flight is of little value in most situations we encounter nowadays. This unconscious pattern of behavior, like the startle response, is more likely to be an obstacle to efficient functioning under normal circumstances. Even where special strength and agility are required it may hamper an effective response: martial arts such as Tai Chi stress the importance of full, diaphragmatic breathing for access to vital energy. Our inherited automatic reflexes do not differentiate between situations of danger and moments of emotional stress. It’s hardly appropriate to react to criticism or embarrassment as if we were facing the prospect of a physical assault. But all too often we allow ourselves to overreact physically to circumstances in which our mental equilibrium is affected. The constant repetition of fight-or-flight reactions is detrimental to both health and clarity of thought. The cumulative effect is to dull our sensitivity and make us tired and edgy. Learning to breathe efficiently under normal circumstances is a vital step in reversing the tendency to get caught up in this negative cycle.

Breathing is one area where the intervention of conscious awareness can have an immediate impact.

What are you doing as you read these words? Are you becoming more aware of your breathing pattern? When you think about the need to breathe deeply, do you sit up or try to change your posture? Do you recognize the relationship between the way you sit or stand and how you breathe?

Under different circumstances the pattern of our breathing alters automatically. When engaged in high levels of activity we require more oxygen, and our breathing rate increases accordingly. Our hearts pump faster to allow the oxygenated blood in our veins to feed our working muscles. We produce a greater volume of carbon dioxide, a waste gas that has to be expelled from our body by more rapid exhalation. Conversely, when we sleep, our heart rate falls and our breathing slows down. A similar metabolic change takes place when we swim with our faces in the water. This is the effect of the dive instinct, a factor which, if we allow it to, naturally affects our breathing rate when we swim. It works to slow down our breathing along with our heartbeat, helping to reduce stress and promote a sense of calmness and well-being. Of course, this can only be experienced if we are confident and relaxed with our faces submerged in the water ¡ª another good reason for mastering this requirement of the swimmer’s art.

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