Breathing is the most vital process in the body, producing the energy the body needs for muscular contraction, glandular secretion and mental process. This activity is mostly conducted on a subconscious level, meaning we are hardly aware of just how vital it is at keeping us alive. Simple right? WRONG! Did you know that most of us breathe incorrectly, and in doing so we are affecting our sleep, mood, digestion, heart function, nervous system, muscles, brain function…plus many more!
Do you suffer headaches, depression, anxiety, emotional distress, nervousness, or muscle tightness? Then read on, because a lot of these ailments can be managed, or the severity lessened, by just learning to breathe correctly. For example, did you know that pranayama techniques (breath control) reduces the severity, or can even prevent the onset of a migraine? It’s exciting stuff to think we have the power and the ability to manage our own health right at our fingertips…well, nostrils really.
It’s a sad fact of life, that following that first big gulp of air we took as a screaming newborn, we’ve developed bad breathing habits. Shock, extreme sadness, stress, or anxiety can alter our breathing patterns. Ever noticed how when you are stressed or anxious, the heart races and you breathe through the mouth, taking shallow breathes from the chest? Other bad habits include over-breathing, holding the breath, shallow, or rapid breathing. Which one describes you? HOW DO YOU BREATHE?
Ok, so how do we breathe? There are numerous ways to breathe, but the most efficient in terms of providing the energy the body needs, and assisting in the removal of carbon dioxide, is with deep diaphragmatic breathing—or referred to in yoga, as yogic breathing. To develop this pattern of yogic breathing we first need to become conscious of the breath. HOW MANY TIMES IN YOUR DAY HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED YOUR BREATHING? I bet not many! It’s not something we typically do.
Take a few moments now to sit up straight, close the eyes and notice how you are breathing. Where did you feel it? Most people would say in the chest and you’d be correct, somewhat. But if you only feel your chest or shoulders moving, chances are you not using the full capacity of your lungs. We are still getting oxygen to the body, but not enough and over time, our nervous system becomes unbalanced, our airways get tighter and blood vessels constrict. You may find it hard to concentrate, feel tired or drained, emotional, or maybe your muscles feel stiff and sore. We can do better!
Say hello to your nose. It’s not just there to make your face pretty. It has a vital role in breathing correctly. This time when you breathe in, try breathing in just through the nose. Your nose plays an important role in filtering the air, removing it of particles, viruses, bacteria and even warming the air before it enters our precious lungs. We are all obsessed about drinking pure, filtered water. Let’s be consistent with how we treat our bodies and extend that to the air breath, simply by using our natural filtration device, our nose.
If you typically breathe through the mouth, you will find making this change a bit of a challenge. Try spending a few breaths every day just consciously making the change. Try and catch yourself during the day and gently remind yourself to use your nose. Over time you will eventually break this habit, and breathing through the nose will become a normal, natural process.
To get the full expansion of our lungs and to gain the full health benefits of breathing properly, we need to breathe all the way down into the belly. Sound odd? Well, not really when you look at it. We have muscles to help in the breathing process that are found in the diaphragm, abdomen, chest, neck and shoulders. Using the abdominal muscles to breathe (the sensation of trying to blow up a balloon) helps to relax the diaphragm, takes pressure off the chest and pushes the air out of the lungs. It helps to deepen, and even the breath. 70-80% of our breathing should be done by the diaphragm (not the chest), which helps massage the liver, stomach and intestines, and provides more of a rhythmical balance to the breath in the body.
Take a few deep breathes now, allowing it to move all the way down to the belly. The belly should expand like a balloon. It can feel odd at first, allowing the belly to relax and expand like this. We all try and suck those tummies in giving the perception of better core muscles. We also tend to hold muscle tension in the abdomen when stressed. Try and relax. I’ve heard it said that Buddha wasn’t fat, just relaxed. As you exhale, this is when we gain control over the abdomen by using the abdominal muscles to contract and squeeze the air from the lungs. This helps to expel all of the stale air from the lungs, preparing the body for the next deep, life-giving breath.
IT’S AS EASY AS 1,2,..5! 5 WAYS TO PROPER BREATHING AND BETTER HEALTH
- Conscious breathing. Spend a few moments a day being aware of how you are breathing. Are you breathing rhythmically, silently and deeply? Are you using your diaphragm and abdomen?
- Breathe through your nose. As best you can keep your mouth closed when you breathe, allowing the breath to be smooth and relaxed.
- Extend the exhalation. This can help promote relaxation and has a positive effect on calming the mind. Try a 2:4 ratio with your breathing. For example, inhale for two counts, then exhale for 4. As you improve over time you may lengthen this to a count that feels comfortable and relaxed.
- Straight posture. The way we breathe affects our posture, and our posture affects the way we breathe. If you’re slouching with the spine collapsed and the shoulders rounded, you won’t be able to use the diaphragm efficiently and get the full expansion of the lungs. An upright posture not only gives the diaphragm more space to work, but also provides a positive affect on the emotions.
- Body awareness. Notice your body and how tense or relaxed it is in different situations. If you are feeling nervous, stressed or upset, the first thing I tell my students to do is to look at their posture and their breathing. Simply just correcting the use of the breathe in these situations can significantly alter your outlook on a situation.