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Breathing is the most vital action we take in our lives, because it is the essence of life for us. We can live for weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without breathing … yet it is the most unconscious action that we take.

Sadly, our modern lifestyles mean we go about our daily lives, living in the fast lane, taking our unconscious breathing for granted. For example, those of us who drive to work do so on motorways and in cities that are jam-packed with cars. We spend hours behind the wheel, frustrated with the stop/start nature of the traffic, stressed and tired, our legs cramped, our arms and shoulders tense and a nagging ache in our lower back. As we get frustrated with the traffic, the traffic lights, the pedestrians, the weather and the fact that potentially we are going to arrive late, our bodies tense, our stress levels rise, and our breathing is constricted. Our day has already not started well, and we haven’t arrived at work yet.

We get to work and sit for hours hunched over our desk, working on the computer, our shoulders rounded and our necks strained. Our poor posture, repeated day in, day out, makes it impossible to breathe deeply, resulting in low-back pain and headaches. The demands of work – unrealistic deadlines, internal politics, organisational structures – create anxiety and negatively affect our breathing. By the middle of the afternoon, we are feeling tired, losing concentration and the “brain fog” has set in, so we take time out for a caffeine break when what we really need is more oxygen!

When we spend our entire day breathing shallow, short, sharp breaths, we signal stress to the body. It’s no wonder so many people feel stressed out – their breathing makes their body react as if they are. So they are!

As the stress builds up, it can create negative thoughts. Our body doesn’t know how to differentiate between real and perceived danger, and programmed to protect itself, takes our negative thoughts as a cue for the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction – to do battle or run away, whichever seems right at that moment. As the adrenalin surges, our blood pressure and heart rate rises, blood flows to our muscles in case we need to run away, and our breathing becomes faster and shallower. Really useful when we are in genuine danger, but not so good when this state of constant stress has become our general approach to living. Sooner or later, the results will show up in some destructive way in the body, so it’s important to learn to break the pattern of stress.

I vividly remember the instant calm I felt the first time I spent just two minutes consciously taking a few deep breaths in and out. I encourage you to try it – simply starting to breathe properly can have a profound effect on your experience of life. Deep, balanced breathing is a great way to reduce stress and promote mindfulness. The most basic meditation practice is simple awareness of the breath, which aids in relaxation, concentration and inner peace.

So here’s a small challenge for you, designed to help you bring awareness to your breathing. Find something you do many times a day, and resolve to notice your breathing every time you do it. For example, every time you wash your hands, reach for the phone, look at the clock, sit down, etc., just check in for three to five seconds. Take a deep breath then continue with what you were doing. Notice if it changes anything. And please share your experiences in the comments below – I love hearing from you!