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THE AYURVEDA KITCHEN: BREATH & DIGESTION

Quite incredibly, how we breathe can affect our sense of taste, appetite and digestive efficiency. Irrespective of what type of food you are eating, to have the optimal chance of digesting it well, an efficient and effective breathing technique is essential.

A relaxed diaphragmatic breathing style (see below) creates a feeling of relaxation.

Slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which creates homeostasis (equilibrium) in the body and promotes digestion, absorption and excretion. Conversely, long-term stress leads to an increase in adrenaline release, heart rate and blood pressure and acidity pH levels within the stomach as the body’s flight-or-fight reflex is triggered. During stressful periods, breathing patterns can become erratic and we fall into a cycle of chest breathing, in which shallow breaths are drawn in using the chest cavity only. When we use only our chest cavity to breathe, our digestive system misses out on a lot of the lovely massage it receives when we use the diaphragm to breathe. This massage is important when it comes to good digestion, both mechanically and chemically.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Relaxed diaphragmatic breathing improves your ability to cope in diff icult situations and minimizes the chances of increases in stomach acidity levels. This means that, when it comes to meal times, there is a greater chance that the right pH level will be present to digest food properly, leading to more post-eating digestive comfort. It causes proper rhythmic movement further down the torso, positively affecting the organs all the way down to the bladder. The whole of our musculature moves inwards and outwards when we breathe properly, creating a ripple effect over these organs. This style of breathing is known as ‘diaphragmatic’, because the diaphragm moves downwards within the body as you inhale, enlarging the space available for the lungs to expand into as they fill with air. You know if you are breathing in this way if your chest, ribcage and belly expand outwards when you inhale. As you slowly inhale, draw the breath down towards the belly. Your ribcage should expand in all directions – forwards, sideways and backwards. The air continues to fill the chest cavity so that the chest lifts upwards. Reverse the process through the nose on the exhalation, allowing the belly, ribcage and chest to retract.

You may find initially that your ribcage does not move much but, after a few breaths, you may be able to feel it moving more as it becomes more engaged in the process. The inhalations and exhalations need to be done in a relaxed fashion, allowing an expansion of the ribcage. I have deliberately suggested here to ‘relax and allow’ the expansion rather than drive it, as you might with exercise. There is a good reason for this. Quite often, poor breathing techniques are initiated during periods of stress, and the last thing that is desired here is to initiate further mechanical stress and release of stress hormones in the body.

Once you are comfortable with the technique, enhance the experience by creating a mental image alongside the physical practice. As you gently allow the breath to roll in through the nose, the chest and towards the belly, with

your eyes closed, try to create a mental image of the breath. You could picture it as a colour, a light, with a swirling quality – whatever image appeals most to you. Whenever you are in your kitchen, bring your awareness to your breath to assess its depth. If you find your breaths are shallow, consciously practise diaphragmatic breathing. Before long, simply being in the kitchen will tr igger your memory and you might automatically begin to breathe diaphragmatically each time you enter the space.

Breathing while eating

How you breathe while you are eating will also have an impact on your digestion. Allow no more than the necessary breath to be drawn in while eating. When food is consumed in a hurry, a lot of additional air can be drawn in too. This leads to indigestion and discomfort, which will present uncomfortably later on. Eating well and breathing correctly bring about a metabolism that works as it should. When the metabolic and communication systems – or agni and prana (digestive fire and life force) are functioning optimally, a good state of health is easier to achieve and maintain. Of course, life is not perfect. Sometimes the reason the metabolic system does not function perfectly is due to a genetic condition, acute illness or long-standing history of traumatic events. But even under these circumstances, eating well and breathing correctly can still help.


THIS IS AN EXTRACT FROM ANNE HEIGHAM’S THE AYURVEDA KITCHEN