How to Breathe for Efficiency, Longevity, and Stress Relief
How has your breathing been today? If you don't know, then it is likely the quality of your breath has been poor. Few of us have developed good breathing habits, and most of us will never know unless we attend a yoga or breath class. Good breathing habits make your body more effective, both in and out of your workouts, and have the additional benefit of reducing the stress response. Here are some tips and exercises to help you get the most out of each breath.
Tip #1: The Lower Lungs are Better Breathers
If you watch a baby breathe, you can see the slow rise in the belly on the inhale and gentle softening of the belly on the exhale. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Somewhere along the way, though, many of us lose this natural breath pattern. We begin to pull the belly in on the inhale, forcing air into the upper lobes of the lungs. Scientifically speaking, "Chest breathing is inefficient because the greatest amount of blood flow occurs in the lower lobes of the lungs … Rapid, shallow, chest breathing results in less oxygen transfer to the blood and subsequent poor delivery of nutrients to the tissues."1 If you train your body to breathe into the lower lungs, you may notice you are able to sustain exercise, as well as daily life, with less effort.
Tip #2: The Breath Indicates Awareness
There is no natural, unconscious movement pattern for the body. For this reason, it is entirely possible to learn a movement, such as running, biking, or yoga, and repeat it with little to no awareness. If we stop paying attention to the breath, however, our unconscious rhythm will kick in. Therefore, it is easy to tell if we're staying truly present in a yoga class by the breath, and this practice can transfer over into many areas of our lives. Our breath indicates our level of awareness and presence in any situation.
Tip #3: We Can Change our Unconscious Breath Pattern
Ideally, we'd like to get to a point where - even when we stop paying attention - the breath is restored to its natural pattern. We do this by training the breath, just like we do the body, through consistent practice. Try this exercise to experience deep, diaphragmatic breathing:
- Lying on your back, place one hand on your belly and one on your heart.
- Exhale all of the air out of your lungs.
- Inhale and breathe only into the belly. Feel it lift up into the hand. Exhale out the belly. Do this three times.
- On your next inhale, breathe only into the ribs - the place between the two hands. Feel the ribs expand up, down, and in all directions. Exhale out the ribs. Do this three times.
- On your next inhale, breathe only into the heart space at the top of the chest. Feel it rise up toward your chin. Exhale out the heart. Do this three times.
- On your next inhale, breathe one-third of your breath into your belly, one-third of your breath into your ribs and one-third of your breath into your heart space. Exhale from the heart first, then the ribs, then the belly. Do this also three times.
This practice will help you feel what it is like to start the breath from the bottom and work up. It is amazing how much control you have to send the breath into different places on your lungs and ribs.
Tip #4: Diaphragmatic Breathing Increases Lung Capacity
It is thought we have the capacity to inhale up to two gallons of air in one breath. Most of us likely only use a small amount of that capacity, causing us to take more breaths than necessary. Each breath is a use of our energy, so by becoming more effective with the breath, we waste less energy. When the diaphragm is tight against the ribs, there is less space for the breath. When the diaphragm pulls away from the ribs first, it opens up space and creates a vacuum effect, pulling air into the very base of the ribs. Here, the lungs are effective, and we get the added benefit of taking in more breath overall.
Tip #5: Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Stress
Of all the reasons people come to my yoga class, stress reduction is in the top three. I think we all know someone who deals with too much stress, and that someone may even be you. If you're looking for a simple, cost-free way to reduce stress, look no further than diaphragmatic breathing. When we breathe this way, we can lower our heart rate and, eventually, our blood pressure. These are two key signals to the brain that everything is okay.2 In fact, slow breathing itself signals the brain that we are just fine, causing the brain to release less stress hormones from our endocrine system. This gives the body a chance to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, essentially stepping in and reversing the effects of the stress hormones already present in the body.
Yogis have long known the breath is the connection between the external world and the internal world. We use the same word - prana - to describe breath, energy, and life itself. Anytime you think of it, pay attention to your breathing. If a day goes by where you haven't consciously thought of your breath, you may be unconsciously causing yourself more stress in a way that can be easily fixed for the benefit of your health and longevity.
1. "Health Hint: Breathing Exercises," American Medical Student Association.
2. "Relaxation techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress," Mayo Clinic, May 19, 2011.
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