Take an expansive breath in and let it out slowly. It may seem like an esoteric or awkward thing to do, but did you know that one of the major contributors to stress and related illness is actually the practice of breathing incorrectly? In our well-intentioned efforts towards self-improvement, we look everywhere and anywhere for the solution that will bring us lasting happiness. Whether reading through thick stacks of books on deep nutrition studies, buying countless new pairs of sneakers for innovative healthy fitness programs, or hustling to the store at 11p.m. to stock the pantry for the latest recipe we've stumbled across, we are all trying to do the "right" things in order to achive our goal for optimal health. Yet sometimes in our frenzy, we forget that one of our ultimate gentle cleansers, stress-relievers and reinvigorators is already right here with us in this very moment: breathing. Building research demonstrates that taking a few minutes everyday to breath correctly might just be that missing link in the quest for radiant wellness that you’ve been striving so hard to find.
An Epidemic of Chest Breathing
Science continues to prove the ancient wisdom that the quality of the breath has large implications on levels of stress, energy, creativity, mood and physical health. Yet due to our desk-sitting habits and stress-driven culture, many of us have actually altered the musculature of our natural posture and have become rapid, shallow, chest breathers. This breath habit compromises oxygen flow, weakens the abdominals, causes adrenal strain, compresses organs, creates lower back pain, and stimulates the adrenaline-cortisol release cycle among other things. It is no wonder that a lot of people resist breathing exercises because it makes them feel more panicked, claustrophobic, or like they can’t get a large enough breath...many of us have actually been working against ourselves to breathe! Experts in both allopathic and holistic health practices are now claiming that learning how to release tension through breath correctly is truly one of the number one tips for healthy living. In addition to immediately relieving stress, it offers profound support for cardiovascular, immune, neurological and digestive system function.
The Anatomy of Breath
In order to understand how to breathe naturally, it is important to understand the very basic physical movements involved in an inhale and exhale. Biologically, the primary muscle that moves air in and out of the lungs is the diaphragm- the large, thin, dome shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. On an in-breath, the diaphragm contracts downward to make more room for air to fill the lungs. This pressure shift gently compresses the abdominal organs and naturally causes the belly to express forward. On an exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up, causing the belly to move softly inward. This process is appropriately called diaphragmatic breathing. Instead of using this pattern however, many people have become used to a strained pattern of breathing from the chest, wherein the ribs splay forward, the shoulders shrug up and strain is visible throughout the neck muscles.
To assess your breathing pattern try this quick exercise:
Sit comfortably in a chair. Place one hand on your abdomen just above the navel and the other over your upper chest. Trying not to change anything, gently inhale and exhale, noticing which way your hands move. In natural breathing the abdomen puffs on in inhale and moves back on the exhale, while the rib cage doesn’t move as dramatically. In reverse breathing the belly moves in on inhalation and out on exhalation, causing more movement into the upper rib cage.
Reconnecting with the Natural Breath
Don’t panic if you are a reverse breather. Oftentimes it is best to simply relax your immediate attention around the breath, allowing change to come through a bit of regular practice. Even if you are already in the habit of diaphragmatic breathing, you may find that something so very simple as reconnecting with the breath on a regular basis will improve breath capacity, strengthen muscles and also center you so that your other tasks can be completed with greater ease. Instead of taking breathing on as another conquerable challenge to strain and strive over, try instead to find the peace in the universal experience of the breath. If it works for you, try out some of the following tips to reconnect. Experts recommend starting with just five minutes a day of conscious practice. Give it a try and see if you notice any difference!
- Chose a location where the air is pure (by the sea, in the forest, in a room with an air purifier)
- Sit or stand comfortably, but upright (in chair, on your heels, on a cushion)
-Close your eyes and bring a pleasant image to your mind (a favorite place, person or object)
- Relax any gripping in your brow, jaw, abdomen, buttocks, and legs...
- Try to breathe in through the nose to warm and humidify the air and slow its flow. If this is not possible or causes strain, just leave this step alone for now and come back to it when ready
- On an exhale, be sure to release as much air as possible. This will make a deep inhale flow naturally and without effort
- Place one hand on the belly above the navel, and the other softly at the lower ribs. As you inhale and exhale, notice the direction of the abdomen and relax so that it is able to extend out on an inhale, and return on the exhale
- Using an even count to moderate the breath can also be helpful. Start by counting slowly to 5 with the inhale, holding for a 3 count, and releasing to 5 on the exhale. As you move through the practice, you may notice that you need to increase the numbers to fit your personal capacity.
To read more about breathing read Chapter 3 of The Secrets of Radiant Living, Our Radiant Breath: The Ultimate Life Enhancement Tool by Joseph Marcello. For more health and healing tools, download the full collection of Chapters 1-6.
Just Breathe: Body Has a Built in Stress Reliever by Gretchen Cuda
Yoga as Medicine Timothy McCall, MD
Wherever You Go, There You Are Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD