The Importance of Proper Breathing
To master our breath is to be in control
of our bodies and minds.
- Thich Nhat Hanh
Through mindful breathing, we can gain a focal point to keep us grounded, reduce stress, attain a clear mind, improve memory, and even reduce muscle inflammation. Breathing mindfully means paying attention to our breath. At what rate are we inhaling and exhaling? Anatomically, what parts of our bodies are moving when we breathe? The closer we can get to achieving long, slow, deep, abdominal breaths, the more benefits we will feel. We have the choice, 5,000 to 30,000 times a day, to either allow our breath to work with us, or against us.
Almost anyone will perform better if their movements are connected to their breath. Watch any top athlete, and it’s rare to see them doubled over and hyperventilating after their race or game. Watch a great singer belt out and fluidly connect line after line of verse on only one breath. Now thinking of yourself and your breath, how many times have you heard, “Just take a deep breath,” from someone who is trying to help you out of a stressful situation? Physiologically speaking, some stress is OK. Stress is what pushes us to a higher level of performance and helps us face new challenges. But in today’s society, most of us deal with stress in large doses (whether self-imposed or not). Most of us are dealing with the task of reducing our stress; Mindful breathing can be a great tool do exactly that.
When in a stressful situation, our Sympathetic nervous system instinctively amps us up to help us determine our next step, most often referred to as flight-or-fight. This state can be associated with rapid, shallow breaths or even holding one’s breath. Living in this revved up state for too long can create dizziness, spaciness, anxiety, and even more serious illnesses. That is why it is so important to achieve a balance with proper rest. When we focus on our breathing, a wonderful thing happens. It becomes slower, deeper, and more full, which triggers our Parasympathetic nervous system. This system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state and sends messages to the brain to release certain salubrious chemicals throughout the body.
While practicing mindful breathing, I like to keep this imagery in mind. I imagine my torso as a big balloon. As I breathe in, I imagine filling that balloon with water. (As a swimmer I really try to avoid this in real life, but for imagery purposes it works…) As the water pours in, it fills the bottom of the balloon and slowly rises to the top. When I decide to squish the water out, the water leaves the balloon from the top first, then all the way to the bottom. In real life, it would look like inhaling and expanding my abdomen first, then my ribs, then maybe even a little lift in my collarbones. When I exhale, I expel the air out from the top, then my ribs, then my abdomen. Try the breathing meditation below to start feeling its benefits today!
While keeping in mind the water balloon analogy, sit or lie down in a comfortable spot, either in a chair, on a bed, on a pillow, etc. In this practice, you are counting from 50 to 0 with your breath. Odd numbers on an inhale, even numbers on an exhale. So, breath in fully and then exhale and say to yourself, "50." Inhale "49," exhale "48," etc. When you exhale at 20 transfer to counting after a full breath cycle. So, inhale then exhale and say to yourself, "19," inhale then exhale and say, "18," all the way to 0.
(This breathing exercise was copied from Erich Schiffman
In the March 2011 issue of
National Geographic, Peter Gwin wrote an article on the Shaolin Monks who practice Kung Fu.
He writes that Master Yang Guiwu told his disciples that breathing was "elemental to harnessing one's chi, or life force. Breath in through the navel, out through your nose.
Know Your Muscles and
How to Keep Them Happy
Attachment Sites: Ribs 7-12, inner surfaces and costal cartilages, xiphoid process of sternum, vertebral bodies of L1-2, and central tendon
Expands thoracic cavity during inhalation
(Ex. As you inhale, your diaphragm descends to increase thoracic space so air fills lungs and as you exhale, your diaphragm ascends to help push air out of lungs.)
The diaphragm is next to impossible to massage. Yet, you can obtain a healthy diaphragm by working on
1. Lie on your back in a comfortable position.
2. Place your hands on your belly, just below your rib cage, and breath slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth.
3. Focus on making your stomach rise against your hands as you breath in. Your chest should remain as still as possible.
4. Breathe out through pursed lips, allowing your stomach to fall inward as the diaphragm relaxes.
5. Continue relaxed breathing, feeling the belly rise and fall as the chest remains still. This exercise optimizes breathing patterns, increases relaxation, and stimulates the immune system.
(Cael, Christy. "Diaphragm." Massage & Bodywork Jan./Feb. 2010: 83-84.)
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