How often do you ask somebody “how are you doing?” If we were really concerned for their wellbeing perhaps it would be better to ask them “how are you breathing?” Many people have forgotten how to breathe deeply into their belly. However, when you reawaken this practice you activate a powerful self-healing tool.
Have you ever stopped to consider how you breathe? Have you ever stopped to watch your breath? If you practice yoga the answer is likely a resounding ‘yes’ as how you breathing is a yogic fundamental. Likewise, meditation practices and relaxation techniques require breath awareness and control. But how often do you stop and consciously breathe deeply during your normal day?
Consciously controlling your breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your health. In particular you reduce the effect of stress on your body when you breathe deeply. As stress leads to the production of free radicals which are the forerunner of serious chronic disease, efficient, effective and mindful breathing is a basic essential of good health practice.
Ninety percent of people breathe completely inefficiently. Their breathing is unconscious and purely reflexive. When breath is not conscious it can easily become haphazard and irregular. Being mindful of your breath allows you the conscious control to command how you breathe rather than allowing it to become automatic. When you are not in control of your breath, when you ignore it, a primitive part of your brain is triggered to step in and take over. Breathing becomes a simple reflex action. It becomes unconscious.
Stop right now and take a look at just how you breathe. Take a deep breath. Do you find it satisfying or somewhat difficult? Is it shallow? Is it fast? Do you sigh a lot? Or gasp? Do you hold your breath? Are you able to breathe deeply down into your abdomen?
Try this experiment. Time yourself and count how many breaths you take in one minute. For most people the number will be between sixteen and twenty which indicates they’re breathing poorly, from the thoracic region, or upper chest. They are breathing reflexively and their breathing is under the control of the primitive part of the brain. This way of breathing is very inefficient. The air they breathe is only making it into the upper part of the lungs. Therefore they are not getting the optimum amounts of oxygen that their body requires.
You can tell easily when people are thoracic breathing. The upper part of the chest rises with each breath and sometimes even the shoulders may rise a little or slump forward.
When we were born we automatically breathed well. When babies breathe their abdomen rises with every in-breath and subsides as they exhale. But most of us lost this innate way of breathing as we got older. As children we copied our parents and those around us who generally shallow breathe. When we get upset, sad or angry we often even hold our breath. By the time we are adults we have become disconnected from our breath, forgetting how to breathe deeply.
When I was young I was taught to suck in my belly and to stand tall, all in the interest of looking good and fitting into tight fashion. But cultural practices such as these are a disaster to good breathing techniques. They are nothing more than learned habits, The desire for a ‘flat stomach’ means many people now have tight diaphragm muscles which lead to restricted breathing. As an adult I had to unlearn this practice and learn to ‘stand loose and let my belly hang out’ so I can use my abdominal muscles to breathe properly.
Breathe Deeply To Reduce Stress
Ongoing stress and anxiety is a major cause of poor breathing for many people. It creates a pattern of shallow, more rapid breathing. Consequently less oxygen reaches the brain. This not only makes them feel light-headed or even dizzy, it also affects their thinking processes, causing them to become unfocused. With reduced thinking capacity they’re less able to deal with their anxiety or stress effectively or rationally. It means they have great difficulty moving their body out of the state of constant readiness, the ‘fight or flight response’. Significantly shallow breathing maintains their body in a state of high stress hormone production.
Most people have at some time been told to slow down and breathe when they are distressed, or sometimes more simply to “take a deep breath”.
When you slow the breath down you also draw air more deeply into your lungs.
However, there’s no point in expecting your lungs to do all the work to breathe. Basically, they’re just empty sacs to hold air and aren’t capable of breathing on their own.
Good breathing utilises muscles lower down the body than those in the chest and upper back. Right across the front of your body below the ribs is a sheet of muscle called the diaphragm. It sits directly below the lungs and above the abdomen. When you squeeze in your belly the diaphragm moves upward and pushes the air out of your lungs. When the abdominal muscles are relaxed the diaphragm moves back down, leaving space for the lungs to stretch out. This then draws air into the expanded lung space. Healthy, beneficial breathing comes from the diaphragm.
When you don’t breathe deeply into the abdomen the space for lung expansion is greatly reduced and less air enters. As a result less oxygen is able to enter the blood. If you put your hand on the bottom of your ribs and take a deep breath right now you’ll feel your hand rise and fall. That’s because the diaphragm is doing its job, rising and falling to push air out of the lungs and let air flow back in. When you breathe deeply you should also see your abdomen rise and fall.
You can see how the diaphragm action works visually right here on youtube.
Benefits Of Breathing Deeply
Long, deep, slow breaths into your abdomen below the umbilicus (belly button) are the most efficient form of breathing as they allow more oxygen to pass into your blood effectively and efficiently. Breathing deeply pulls the air, and therefore the oxygen right down deep into the base of the lungs, not just into the upper part, as it does during thoracic breathing.
Deep rhythmic breathing brings more air into the lungs and into the bloodstream. It Increases the return of blood to the lungs and sends more blood to the capillaries. Breathing deeply helps remove more toxins from the body in the expelled air. It helps to prevent disease and to manifest healing if disease is already present.
The lower part of the lungs hold a greater concentration of blood and drawing the air into this area allows for a higher transference of the oxygen from the air into your blood cells.
Rather than breathing rapidly as you do with reflexive breathing, slowing the breath to about eight or nine breaths a minute has a dynamic effect on your circulation. It reduces the work of the heart by increasing the suction pressure in the thoracic cavity. In addition it also creates a gentle massage to the heart muscle, stretching it downward with the movement of the diaphragm, and upward when the fuller lungs press on it. It also relaxes the muscles in the chest, ribs and stomach.
How To Properly Breathe Deeply
Shallow breathing is a developed habit, and therefore like other habits needs to be unlearned. To do this you first need to learn how to breathe properly and then to practice it with increasing frequency. In this way it becomes a normal part of your life. By starting slowly you allow your muscles to develop, until your body begins to obey your mind and you start to breathe more efficiently.
Deep rhythmic breathing is simple to do but in order to make it an automatic response it takes some conscious practice. The easiest way to start is to lie down and place one hand in the middle of your chest and the other on the bottom edge of your rib cage. As you inhale the lower hand at the base of the ribs should rise, and as you exhale it should fall. The upper hand should barely move at all.
By practising this regularly, deep diaphragmatic breathing will become a habitual part of your life. Eventually you will notice that your breathing has become slower and deeper. You don’t need to lie down to practice this but consciously doing it throughout the day sets up the pattern. Set the intent to do some deep breathing every hour, or every time you do a certain action. It can be as simple as standing up from your desk, or changing your activity. Choose any marker you may have in your day to create a habit to bring the practice into your life. I try to consciously breathe slowly and deeply when I’m driving the car. It allows me a definite space of time to maintain the practice. Plus it helps keep down stress levels that are inevitable in heavy traffic. After a few months you’ll find that you breathe deeply with ease.
You can practice standing, sitting, or lying on your back with your arms by your side, palms facing up. Breathe out quietly through your nose or mouth and then breathe in through your nose. Minimise the pause between breaths. This ensures that the air is filtered and moistened. Gradually lengthen the time of each breath.
Practising rhythmic deep breathing ten times a day for a few months will bring you deep rest and relaxation. It also reduces your stress experience. You will become calmer, less nervous, and all the functions of your body will reflect the benefits. You become healthier, happier and more energised.
If you’d like help to practice how to breathe deeply join a praniyama (breathing) class. Praniyama is a yoga technique to control universal energy through breath regulation.
Become aware of all the times you may be taking shallow breaths, holding your breath, raising your shoulders, or when your chest rises and falls. These are all signs of inefficient breathing and often an indication of the onset of a state of stress. Notice also if this breathing coincides with particular states of mind. It may be an early warning that your flight or flight response has switched on, triggering the flood of stress hormones being released into your system.
Remember it’s essential for almost all of us to re-learn how we breathe, not just for the singers amongst us. Stop and breathe deeply as often as you can throughout your day and start to change those damaging habits.
image: Shawn Rossi
All information and opinions presented here are for information purposes only. They are not intended as a substitute for professional advice offered during a consultation with your health care provider. Do not use this article to diagnose a health condition. Speak to your doctor if you think your condition may be serious or before discontinuing any prescribed medication. Please consult with your health care provider before following any of the treatment suggested on this site, particularly if you have an ongoing health issue.
Smith Jones, Susan, Health Bliss: 50 Revitalizing NatureFoods and Lifestyle Choices to Promote Vibrant Health, Kindle ed, 2008