Breathing is essential to life, it’s the first thing we do when we are born, and the last thing we do before we die. But how often to you remember to just breathe? Because our breath happens unconsciously we often forget that we can be conscious of our breath.
As the ancient wisdom traditions have always known—and recent scientific research is corroborating—proper breathing is very beneficial for optimal health. With conscious breathing, you can turn off of the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest.)
The good news is you have total control over your breath and how it affects your health, if you remember to just breathe. Studies have shown that a regular deep breathing practice can help to lose weight, lower blood pressure, alleviate pain, aid mental clarity, and even detox your body…if you just breathe.
“Healing is every breath.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Your breath is influenced by your thoughts and your thoughts can influence your breath. As an example, chronic shallow chest breathing has been shown to lead to anxiety. And think about this, if you’re upset, angry, or afraid, do you notice your breath getting shallower and faster? Maybe you even hyperventilate? This can cause a momentary adrenaline rush through your body. This adrenaline rush may have been helpful in ancient times to help you escape the saber-toothed tiger. However, today that shot of adrenaline every time you get angry at traffic or your boss just starts to harm your health. Along with adrenaline, your body produces the hormone cortisol which sticks around much longer, and in excess, can have more long-lasting and detrimental effects. High levels of cortisol are harmful to your heart and psychological health among other parts of your body. Luckily remembering to “just breathe” can reverse these effects.
Prana, Mana, Chi, or Ki
If you’ve practiced yoga or meditation, you may be familiar with the Sanskrit term Prana. In Chinese it’s called Chi (“chee”), in Japanese Ki (“key”), in Hawaii and the South Pacific it’s Mana. They all mean the same thing, life-force energy, or breath. We now know that deep belly-breathing, rather than shallow chest breathing, is the best type of breath for optimal health. Proper breathing can even promote pelvic floor strength and recovery from childbirth or incontinence. Who knew?!
It might sound silly since we’ve been breathing our whole life—but many people really don’t know how to breathe correctly. With each breath, your ribcage should expand out in all directions like a balloon being filled up—front, back, sides, top, and bottom. And each exhale should be twice as long as your inhale. You may need to work up to that, but I’ll walk you through some steps here that will help.
Steps to Breathing for Optimal Health
- take a deep inhale through your nose from the bottom up and feel your belly expand down and out,
- continue inhaling as you fill your rib cage in all directions,
- keep inhaling all the way up into your upper chest
- then pause for a moment or two…
- fully exhale from the top down, breathing out your mouth,
- exhale all the air out of your chest,
- continue exhaling all the air out of your rib cage,
- keep exhaling all the air out of your stomach,
- finally do your kegal exercises at the bottom to help push out the remaining stale air.
Full, deep belly-breath in through your nose, full exhale out through your mouth. Repeat. That’s how we breathe when we run or do other physical activity, and how humans were meant to breath for optimal health. If you don’t fully exhale stale air can just sit inside you and stagnate and you won’t be able to fully inhale your next breath
4-7-8 Breathing Technique
We frequently practice the “Andrew Weil 4-7-8 breathing technique” (I’m not sure if he actually made it up, but he’s been promoting it for years and it’s super easy to do.) This breathing technique quickly helps turn off your sympathetic nervous system, and put you into rest-and-digest mode.
Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of 4. Then hold your breath for a count of 7. Finally exhale fully out your mouth for a count of 8. Start practicing this technique once or twice a day for 3-4 breaths each time, gradually working up to three times a day for 6 breaths each time. If you have any known health or pulmonary issues, be sure to consult your doctor before trying this technique.
Additional Breathing Techniques
There are many other breathing techniques such as Ujjayi breath (“Ocean breath” that you may know from yoga), or alternate nostril breathing. I’m not going to go into those here but the Chopra Center offers a free online program teaching four breathing techniques.
Setting a timer once an hour during the day reminds me to pause, get my head OUT of whatever I’m immersed in, and take a few deep breaths, making sure to exhale twice as long as I inhale. If I’m working, I also get up and take a quick walk around (down the dock, or down the street if I’m using Starbucks wifi!) and then I drink a few sips of water before getting back in the nose to grindstone mode.
I’ve been under a fair amount of stress recently (more about that in another post soon) and have had to keep reminding myself to just breathe. Please leave a comment to let us know what benefits you’ve experienced from deep breathing?