How often do we 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?”
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 the use of breathing is a yogic fundamental. Likewise, meditation practices and relaxation techniques require breath awareness and control. But how often do you stop and consciously alter your breath during your normal day?
Consciously controlling your breathing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to diminish the effect of stress on your body and improve your health. As stress leads to the production of free radicals and free radicals 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. Is it satisfying or do you find it somewhat difficult? Is it shallow? Is it fast? Do you sigh a lot? Or gasp? Do you hold your breath?
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 that they are 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, which means they are not getting the optimum amounts of oxygen that their body requires.
You can tell when people are thoracic breathing as 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 breathed. 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.
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, which are the basis of learned habits, are a disaster to good breathing techniques. The desire for a flat stomach has meant that many people now have tight diaphragm muscles which lead to restricted breathing. As an adult I have 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.
Living with ongoing stress and anxiety is another major cause of poor breathing for many people. It creates a pattern of shallow, more rapid breathing, which means that 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 are 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’, and it maintains their body in a state of high stress hormone production.
Why Develop The Habit Of Deep Breathing
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 breathe air more deeply into your lungs.
However, there is no point in expecting your lungs to do all the work to breathe as basically, they are just empty sacs to hold air, and are incapable of doing the work of breathing on their own.
Good breathing utilizes 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, which 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, meaning 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 will feel your hand rise and fall. That is because the diaphragm is doing its job, rising and falling to push air out of the lungs and let air flow back in. If you are breathing deeply you should also see your abdomen rise and fall.
All information and opinions presented here are for information purposes only and are not intended as a substitute for professional advice offered during a consultation. 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