The Art of Breathing?
Most of us have been breathing since the day we were born, so you’d figure we’d be pretty good at it. In fact, however, many of us (myself included!) do not breathe as well as we could and should. You might think this is a function of your body or your sinuses and not something you can do anything about.
But in fact, breathing is the only bodily function that we perform both voluntarily and involuntarily. If you have done yoga, you are probably aware that it is possible to consciously use breathing to influence the involuntary nervous system, which regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, and digestion, among other bodily functions. With the help of breathing exercises, it is possible to influence those functions that we generally do not control consciously.
While the connective and muscular tissue in your chest can become restricted as a result of chronic stress—resulting in decreased range of motion of the chest wall—you can retrain yourself to breathe more efficiently. The first step is to see whether you are, in fact, a “chest breather.” Chest breathing is the result of rapid, shallower breathing, which causes the chest to expand less and prompts much of the air exchange to occur at the upper end of the lung tissue. To see whether this is the sort of you do, place your right hand on your chest and your left on your abdomen. If your right hand rises more as you breathe, you are a chest breather, while if your left goes up more, you are an abdomen or diaphragmatic breather.
Why does the type of breather you are matter? Chest breathing results in less oxygen being transferred to the blood and, subsequently, fewer nutrients being delivered to the tissues because the rapid, shallow breaths and chest constriction that characterize it limit blood flow to the lower lobes of the lung, where the greatest amount of blood flow should occur. In contrast, diaphragmatic breathing improves the blood flow to the heart, as well as the flow of lymph, which is laden with immune cells. These increases improve stamina in athletic activity and help prevent infection in the lung and elsewhere in the body. Perhaps best of all, though is that it is a great way to stimulate the relaxation response, which prompts a decrease in tension and creates a general sense of well-being.
So how do you retrain yourself to become a diaphragmatic breather if you are a chest breather? Like many things, it takes practice. The breathing exercise below (taken from the amsa.org website) should be done at least twice a day, as well at times you find yourself brooding over things that distress you or when you are in pain.
o Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the one on the chest. This insures that the diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of the lungs.
o After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow deep breath in through your nose imagining that you are sucking in all the air in the room and hold it for a count of 7 (or as long as you are able, not exceeding 7)
o Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from the lungs. It is important to remember that we deepen respirations not by inhaling more air but through completely exhaling it.
o Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breaths and try to breathe at a rate of one breath every 10 seconds (or 6 breaths per minute). At this rate our heart rate variability increases which has a positive effect on cardiac health.
In general, exhalation should be twice as long as inhalation. The use of the hands on the chest and abdomen are only needed to help you train your breathing. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to breathe into the abdomen, they are no longer needed.
A guide I have sometimes used to work on my own breathing is the audio CD Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing (Sounds True, 1999; ISBN: 156455726X) by Andrew Weil. After a discussion of the health benefits of breathing, Weil directs the listener through eight breathing exercises.