The importance of breathing properly

We explain why breathing, the simplest of activities, can make the biggest difference to our health and happiness.

We all know that breathing is essential to life – it’s not called “The Breath of Life” for nothing – life begins in the very moment we take our first breath and ends precisely when we exhale our last.  You can go months without food, days without water, and only minutes without breath, for breath is the foundation of life on this planet. More than any other vitamin or nutrient, oxygen, which we get primarily through breathing, is the source of our physical and spiritual nourishment. The ancient Rishis, Mystics and Swamis knew and understood this fact. Shaolin monks, yoga practitioners and special forces soldiers all share awareness of the importance of the breath, using variations of breathing techniques to improve health, bring focus to the mind, control their physical responses and improve performance when under pressure.

Breathing affects every system in the human body – it oxygenates the body, revilatizing our organs, cells and tissues. Breathing fuels the body’s energy production, improves our ability to focus and concentrate, eliminates toxins from our bodies, strengthens our muscles and the immune system, improves digestion and bowel function, reduces tension, inflammation, stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure and even aids in weight loss.  Conversely, not breathing correctly can cause problems for every system in our body – including the immune system, circulatory system, endocrine system and nervous system.  Improper breathing has been known to produce a variety of symptoms including numbness, mental fog, dizziness, anxiety, panic attacks, chest pain, digestive issues, irritable bowel syndrome, neck and shoulder pain.

Why aren’t we breathing properly?

Proper breathing technique is critical to optimal health and yet most of us are never taught now to breathe properly.  Couple this with the fact that modern lifestyles do not support optimal breathing habits we now see dysfunctional breathing habits in 90% of the population.  We often don’t do enough physical exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, which encourages us to focus on our breathing. The human body is not designed for a sedentary lifestyle, however, as we age we stop climbing and jumping and playing, moving our body in all 3 dimensions, and spend more and more time seated, often slouched over computers or desks, or in cars, where our posture is sub-optimal and does not allow full expansion of the stomach or lungs.

Culturally, we have neglected the function of breathing.  Sadly, most people’s natural instinct is to suck their stomach in when they take a deep breath, this comes from teachings in childhood which continue into adulthood as we want to look slim and to appear to have a flat stomach.  This practice which actually inhibits us from using our diaphragm (the principal muscle of breathing) and encourages upper chest breathing which leads us to hold a lot of tension in.  We can already be under constant stress and tension with our busy lives, so we tend to breathe shallow and fast, and this exacerbates the problem and poor habits become ingrained.

Are you breathing properly?

To understand whether you’re breathing using your diaphragm, lie on your back and place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Now take a deep breath in through your nostrils to the count of four. Is your stomach rising or your chest rising? Ideally your stomach should be pushing outward first, and if you take a very deep breath, the chest should rise. If you breathe deeply in your upper chest, your shoulders will move.

Learning to breathe properly

Breathing begins, first and foremost, with great posture, which is why breath and yoga have been practiced together for thousands of years. Sitting up straight allows the lungs to expand efficiently with every breath, this helps air to travel into the lungs and carbon dioxide to travel out of the lungs unimpeded. If you are sitting at your desk and feel foggy or otherwise uninspired, take a moment to reposition your body with a straight back to notice an immediate improvement at how well oxygen is reaching your bloodstream and brain, improving your clarity and sense of alertness.

While many people focus on inhaling completely in order to improve their breathing, most people only exhale 70 percent of the carbon dioxide in their lungs. Try, instead to push all the air out of your lungs on an exhale. Not only will your body reward you with instant energy, you will notice how much more efficiently you are able to fill your lungs.

Diaphragmatic breathing

About a third of people have never used their diaphragm. That’s about the percentage of people who have somehow not been trained to use this muscle, or who have emotionally needed to shut that area down.  So what we want to do is introduce you to your diaphragm and to retrain your body into an abdominal breathing pattern.

1. To make this easier, lie on your back so that all the muscles in your upper body can relax.

2. Place one hand on your abdomen just below the ribcage and the other hand on the sternum or breast bone.

3. Take a normal breath in, using your hands to feel that the breath is going into the lower ribs and abdomen and that the breast bone is not moving.  This is abdominal breathing.

4. So let’s do it again. Breathe in, belly up, breathe out, belly down.

5. Breathe in, belly up, relaxing on the exhale, belly down.

6. Breathe in, breathe out.

Engaging an inactive diaphragm

If you do not feel movement in your belly, this exercise is going to get your diaphragm working, so that you can begin using your diaphragm for absolutely every breath.

1. Lie on your stomach, with your arms up and your head to the side.

2. Breathe in, belly up, breathe out, belly down.

3. Breathe in, belly up, relaxing on the exhale, belly down.

4. Breathe in, breathe out.

5. Continue for 3 minutes.

In time, with retraining, your breathing pattern will normalise and you will and gain all of the health benefits that come with it.  When you next experience a period of stress, knowledge of these breathing exercises can really help to reduce the toll that it takes on the body and help you manage the symptoms of stress more easily.

At Breath Evolution, our courses incorporate the teaching of breathing techniques based in pranayama, to achieve specific health and wellness goals.

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