The Breath of Life
By Sabina Brownstein
Studies show that simply learning how to breathe correctly can have remarkable positive effects on both your physical body and your emotional balance. The Farmingham Heart Study has been monitoring thousands of participants over a 30-year period, and they have come up with convincing evidence that one of the most significant factors for good health and long life is how well you breathe. Breathing correctly is critical in maintaining your level of oxygen, and for sending it to the cells of your body where it creates energy. In addition, a full 70% of the elimination of wastes from your body comes through your breathing.
Unfortunately, most people are not getting the full benefits from their breathing, and in fact, the average person uses only about 20% of their lung capacity. The good news is that poor breathing habits can be reversed with practice, and the first step is to understand just how your respiratory system works. A helpful analogy is to think of your lungs in terms of a bellows that is used to blow air onto a fire. When you open the bellows it creates a vacuum within, and this sucks the air in. You then compress the bellows which forces the air out (and helps to boost the energy of your fire).
Your lungs work in a similar way. There is a muscle just below your lungs called the diaphragm. When you breathe in it is because this muscle is pushing downwards, and this creates a vacuum effect which sucks air into your lungs (just like the opening of the bellows). When the diaphragm relaxes upwards it pushes the air out of the lungs, thus causing you to exhale (like the closing of the bellows). You can see this most clearly by watching a baby sleeping on her back. As the baby breathes in her tummy rises because the diaphragm is pushing down on it. As the baby exhales her tummy gently goes back down as the diaphragm pushes upward. Tummy out = air in; tummy in = air out.
This ‘abdominal breath’ is the way your body is meant to breathe, but most people have lost this natural breathing rhythm and instead take only shallow breaths into the upper chest. Shallow chest breathing gives you much less air per breath, so to compensate your body takes a higher number of breaths. This pattern of short shallow breathing constricts your blood vessels, and the result is that less oxygen goes to the brain, heart and all other organs. In addition, your exhalations become weaker so you are not thoroughly eliminating toxins through the breath, and thus they build up throughout the body. The way to correct this is through a simple practice of breath awareness. Each morning, before you start your day, take a moment to watch your breath. Just sit up in bed, close your eyes, and feel your abdomen go out as you breathe in... and then feel it go back down as you breathe out. Keep watching this natural, easy rhythm of your breath... and relax. As you go through your day try to occasionally become aware of how you are breathing; and if it is not abdominal then consciously change it. Over time this natural way of breathing will gradually become normal for you.
Another great breathing exercise is the Relaxing 4-7-8 Breath. You can do this anytime that you want to let go of stress or just to relax. It is also a perfect way to start a meditation. The first thing is to make sure that the tip of your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth, and keep it there throughout the whole practice. This completes your inner breathing circuit. Next, exhale completely making a big “Whoosh” sound. Now close your mouth and inhale through the nose to a count of FOUR... then hold your breath for a count of SEVEN. Finally, you exhale through the mouth (whoosh) to a count of EIGHT. Repeat the cycle for a total of four full breaths, and make sure to use the same cadence when you do the counting of 4, 7 and 8.
Learning to breathe properly is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to re-balance and energize your entire system. By consciously changing the rhythm and depth of your breathing you will be providing more life-giving oxygen to every cell in your body. It will also help to regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, circulation and digestion. In addition, studies have shown that breathing more deeply activates the body’s “relaxation response” – a physiological state of peace that allows you to respond more calmly to stressful situations. A great way to start receiving these benefits is to create a daily practice that integrates healthy breathing into your life so that you can naturally calm your nervous system and energize your body. •