Breathing correctly can be as powerful as it is simple. The typical person only uses around twenty percent of their lung capacity, but with practice, they can learn how to tap into their lung’s full potential. Sending better oxygen content to all the cells of the body can bring dramatic changes in general health and mood.
Famous health guru, Dr. Andrew Weil, says that if he could only give one tip for better health, it would be to breathe properly. Proper breathing technique is central to the ancient practices of Yoga, Qi Gong, Ayurveda and other meditation disciplines. A clinical study* of thousands of participants over a 30-year period presents convincing evidence that the most significant factor in peak health and long life is how well you breathe.
*You can get more information on the ongoing Framingham Heart Study from the Department of Health and Human Services/ National Institutes of Health/ National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/framingham/index.html
Breathing correctly is critical in maintaining the level of oxygen for energy, keeping the correct pH levels in the body, and enough carbon dioxide for bodily functions. Healthy people make 93 per cent of their energy aerobically (“in the presence of oxygen”) but poor breathing habits can reduce the amount of energy made aerobically to 84 per cent. A full seventy percent of the elimination of wastes from the body is through breathing. The good news is that poor breathing habits can be reversed. Among infants, correct breathing comes naturally. Observe a baby as it breathes to see its belly rise and fall with each breath. As we grow older, we are taught to “suck in that gut” and “puff out that chest” as we try to achieve as slim a waist as possible. Such resistance to the natural breathing posture restricts oxygen intake, which can lead to numerous physical as well as emotional problems.
Shallow “chest breathing” invites problems by delivering less air per breath into the lungs. Less air per breath leads to a higher number of breaths, putting in motion a series of physiological changes that constrict blood vessels. Less oxygen reaches the brain, the heart and the rest of the body as a result. Less productive exhale causes an imbalance between the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and a buildup of toxins that should have been eliminated through breathing.
Too much oxygen, and not enough carbon dioxide, can create an agitated state. As you learn to exhale slowly, you conserve carbon dioxide and rebalance the system.
However, too much carbon dioxide, and not enough oxygen, can create feelings of fatigue and depression. Learning to inhale slowly re-balances your system by taking in more oxygen. In extreme cases, a restricted supply of oxygen can contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, and even phobias.
- To see how you currently breathe, find a comfortable position and make sure to breathe as you normally do.
- Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest.
- Breathe as you normally would and notice whether your “stomach” hand rises or your “chest” hand rises.
- To breathe properly, your stomach area must rise more than your chest as your diaphragm expands.
How to breathe “right”
- Begin by slowly breathing in through your nose through the count of 4. Breathe into your belly so your diaphragm expands.
- Hold the breath for a count of 7.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. When you exhale, try to make a soft “whoosh” sound by holding the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth as you exhale slowly. (Called 4-7-8 breathing)
- Repeat this process for three more times (for a total of four breaths). Do not do more than four breaths at first – with practice, you can work your way up to eight breaths. Do this twice each day.
- If the process causes you to begin panicking or if you become dizzy, only do it for as long as you are able.
- Increase the number of breaths each day until you can do the exercise four times per hour (every 15 minutes).
With practice, you can be breathing this way naturally throughout the day.
“Take a deep breath” can be very bad advice to someone who is feeling anxious or is agitated. If such a person begins taking deep breaths, they are likely to experience an even more aroused state.
Such advice can lead to hyperventilation (breathing too fast.) The amount of carbon dioxide in blood generally regulates breathing. If carbon dioxide is released too rapidly, the arteries and blood vessels constrict and an insufficient supply of oxygen to the cells results. This includes the blood (and oxygen) supply to the brain. Restricting oxygen supply to the brain can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight” response) and cause tension, anxiety, mood swings, and depression.
Remembering to Breathe
Learning the proper breathing technique is important – remembering to practice that technique can become even more important. In the typical day, it is easy to become focused on a task (such as the computer or driving) and forget to breathe properly. The tendency is to revert into shallow “chest breathing.” Regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing, with measured inhale and exhale, will result in proper breathing becoming the only breathing you will do. But, like anything else, proper breathing is a learned skill and practice is critical.
Getting “lost” at a computer keyboard or within the pages of a good book happens to everyone. You will need a timer or similar alarm to remind you on a regular basis throughout the day to practice this skill. Kitchen timers work well as does a wristwatch alarm or cell phone alarm. As these require resetting and the audible alarm can be embarrassing in some settings, there is a “personal breathing coach” device on the market with a discreet, silent alarm at www.breathminder.com.
Articles regarding diaphragmatic breathing abound on the Internet. In addition to the many health benefits achieved through proper breathing technique, there are numerous web sites devoted to breathwork for sports, public speaking, singing, and musical instruments. Many sites incorporate breathwork into practice of meditation as well as natural healing and holistic medicine modalities. Search breathwork, diaphragmatic breathing, or simply healthy breathing to find an extensive array of materials.
Unfortunately, this information is not widespread in today’s medical community. Topics of illness and pathology are the priority of most healthcare training, not wellness. In addition, things that are free and can’t be patented (like breathing) do not attract funding for research, so little finds its way into popular medical journals.
Breathing correctly can be as powerful as it is simple. Use the equipment you were given at birth (your lungs) to find remarkable health effects throughout your body.