Breathing properly and fully is one the most powerful and effective ways to quickly improve your entire health – physical, mental and emotional! Yet, most of us pay no attention to the quality of our breathing. Instead, we sit hunched over at our computers or in our autos, constricting the vital flow of air into our lungs. When we were babies, we breathed naturally and fully, right from the first gasp that filled our lungs at the moment of our birth. Watch a baby breathing and you will see their belly rise and fall with every breath, as their lungs expand fully. But, on the long road of life, we become unconscious and habitual shallow breathers, barely filling even a third of our lungs’ capacity with life-giving air.
Every single cell in our body requires oxygen to function properly. Oxygen is essential to life itself. The main pathway for oxygen to enter our bodies is through our lungs – two large sacks that fill up most of our chest cavity. The lungs are not muscles and are unable to move on their own, but the chest is a closed cavity surrounding them. The size of the chest cavity can be changed by the flexing inward and outward of the flexible rib cage that surrounds it. Also, the chest cavity has a floor to it – a powerful muscle called the diaphragm which separates the chest cavity from the abdomen containing our stomach, liver, intestines and other organs. When the chest expands and the diaphragm pushes downward, this creates a negative pressure within the chest and air rushes through the esophagus and into the lungs to fill the vacuum. When the chest constricts and the diaphragm pushes upward towards the lungs, this creates a positive pressure in the chest which forces the air out of the lungs. These are the ideal mechanics of full breathing, but unfortunately few people breathe in this manner. Shallow breathers usually don’t do full abdominal breathing, but instead simply raise and lower their upper chest and shoulders, taking in only a fraction of what the lungs are capable of inhaling.
Incomplete, shallow breathing is problematic for several important reasons. First, the reduced intake of oxygen means that the body is not receiving what it needs to stay alive and well. Second, the air in the lungs is never fully expelled and our lungs remain partially filled with carbon dioxide. This is the gas produced as a waste product of our biological functions from the life-giving oxygen we breathe and it needs to be eliminated. Instead, many people are literally suffocating in their own exhaust. The remedy to this is easy, though. We only need to become conscious of our breathing and retrain ourselves about how to breathe.
Visualizing Full Breathing – A Great Place To Start
I am going to borrow an analogy about full breathing taught to me by my favorite yoga teacher, Devin Morgan. She explains that the human torso is like a two-story building. The upper apartment contains the lungs and heart and the lower apartment contains the other main internal organs. The two apartments are separated by the floor of the upper apartment, which is also the ceiling of the lower apartment. When we breathe in air, the upper apartment’s walls (the rib cage) expand outward and the floor (the diaphragm) pushes downwards towards the lower apartment. This downward movement puts pressure on the contents of the lower apartment, pushing them towards the front door (the belly), which bulges outward. When we breathe out, the walls of the upper apartment draw back in and the floor rises upward, putting pressure on the lungs. The contents of the lower apartment are drawn back in and the front door (the belly) moves inward towards the back wall (the spine). This mental picture perfectly describes full abdominal breathing.
Now, For A Breathing Exercise To Retrain Your Breath
Find a comfortable position sitting cross-legged on the floor (hands resting palms-up on knees), or in a chair that supports your back in an upright position, or lying on your back on the floor or bed if your lower back hurts when seated. Make sure that you are comfortable, but that your abdomen and chest are not hunched and collapsed forward. You will be trying to consciously slow down your breathing. There is a breathing technique in Yoga known as Ujjayi Breathing. It is sometimes called the “Ocean Breath” because of the ocean-like sound it produces in the throat area. The Ujjayi breath is commonly used for full oxygenation during Flow-style Yoga such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and allows the yogi to slow down and control their breath. The ocean-like sound is made by constricting the Epiglottis at the back of the throat. Until you learn how to control this, it can be done by pressing the tip of the tongue against the back of the front teeth. This flattens out the back of the throat producing a whispering rush as you breathe. This entire breathing exercise will be done inhaling and exhaling through the nose, not the mouth.
You will be counting to measure the time you inhale and exhale, making both the same length. Start with a count of six and, if that is comfortable, extend it to a count of eight. Eventually as you regularly practice, you will be able to extend the count even further. Now exhale all of the air out of your lungs. Then begin to draw the air into your belly area for a count of three (3), letting your belly swell outward as the diaphragm drops and your lungs begin to fill. Continue inhaling into the chest area for the rest of the count to six (6), letting you rib cage fully expand until your lungs are completely full. Then smoothly begin to exhale all of the air out of your lungs to a count of six (6). Draw your navel in towards your backbone to help expel all of the air. Begin the inhale and exhale patterns again as before and keep repeating. When you move to eight (8) counts, it will be four (4) counts into the belly and four (4) counts into the chest. At first, try to perform this practice for 2 to 5 minutes. Let go of any thoughts in your head and keep your mind’s focus on the breathing and counting. Over time, you can begin to extend the length of these breathing sessions. This controlled, rhythmic full-breathing technique will have great benefits to your overall health. It recharges the entire body with oxygen while it helps quiet and focus the mind, alleviating tension and anxiety. It also provides the perfect foundation for effectively performing the physical yogic postures and exercises and can be used throughout your yoga session.
A Final Message To Those Who Suffer From Anxiety
One major cause of anxiety is the lack of adequate oxygen in our bloodstream. Have you ever noticed that the breath tends to be stifled and shallow when we are anxious? Our body reacts as if it is being drowned, floods our system with stress chemicals and increases the anxious reaction. The next time you are feeling nervous or anxious, try to bring your mind to your breathing and try to breathe fully and slowly in the manner that is described in the above lesson. You will soon find the anxious feelings begin to subside and calmness replace them. This is a perfect technique to employ because no one around has to know that you are doing it – be it in rush hour traffic, a tense business situation, or any time you are feeling nervous or upset.
One last thing to mention is that there are a lot of people who are “Reverse Breathers.” These are are folks who actually breathe backwards, compressing their chest as they inhale and expanding it as they exhale. This way of breathing (or not breathing) constricts the flow of air and sends constant emergency messages to the brain causing chronic anxiety. If you are or think you might be a Reverse Breather, you need to become aware of the dangers of backwards breathing and work to correct it. You are also most likely to be on prescription anti-anxiety medicine. If you find it difficult to do the full breathing exercise described earlier in this article in a correct manner, you should try to find a reputable yoga instructor or a breathing therapist who can personally work with you to teach you how to properly breathe. Don’t fool around if you suffer from this condition – it is very serious. Once corrected, you may even find that you can finally stop taking anti-anxiety medication.
“Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and well being than breathwork.” – Andrew Weil, M.D.