Deep Breathing: It’s Easy When You Don’t Try
Breathing has been long considered essential for maintaining chi, the life-force energy of Eastern cultural traditions. Only more recently, however, have Americans begun to embrace the wisdom of taking a deep breath.
"Breathing incorrectly can produce tension, exhaustion and vocal strain, interfere with athletic activity and encourage aches and illnesses," says Nancy Zi, a Glendale, Calif.-based breathing expert and author of the book and video set, "The Art of Breathing." Breathe correctly, however, and you can "melt away tension and stress, improve energy or simply relax and unwind."
Dennis Lewis, who leads breathing awareness workshops and is the author of "The Tao of Natural Breathing," observes: "Most of us take our breathing for granted. The great Taoist sage Chuang Tzu says that most of us breathe from our throats, and that real human beings breathe from their heels."
Here’s what happens: Breathing oxygenates every cell of your body, from your brain to your vital organs. Without sufficient oxygen, your body becomes more susceptible to health problems. For example, in a study published in The Lancet, cardiac patients who took 12 to 14 shallow breaths per minute (six breaths per minute is considered optimal) were more likely to have low levels of blood oxygen, which "may impair skeletal muscle and metabolic function, and lead to muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance."
In contrast, deep breathing raises levels of blood oxygen, promoting health in many ways — from stimulating the digestive process to improving fitness and mental performance. Even alternative health icon Dr. Andrew Weil says: "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly."
Are You a Shallow Breather?
Zi observes that most people are "shallow breathers" — they use only the narrow top portion of the lung surface for oxygen exchange. Our breath literally stops at the diaphragm — a band of tissue that Lewis calls our "spiritual muscle."
To find out if you’re a shallow breather, try Zi’s simple test: Put your palms against your lower abdomen and blow out all the air. Now, take a big breath. If your abdomen expands when you inhale and air seems to flow in deeply to the pit of your stomach, you’re on the right track.
More typically, though, shallow breathers are likely to take a breath and pull in their stomach, which pushes the diaphragm up so the air has nowhere to go. What happens next is that the shoulders go up to make room. "All this effort for something, which should be a natural gift!" Zi exclaims.
"Where is the core? It’s below the navel a few inches or so. It isn’t a thing, you can’t see it: it’s a sensation. Zi likes to use the image of a lotus blossom when teaching people how to breathe from their core:
"When you inhale, imagine a blossom opening within your abdomen; when you exhale, the blossom closes. You open from the center of the blossom, the core. What causes the petals to open is the energy from the core; the more you breathe from the core, the more you stimulate and nourish its energy, and you become more in control."
So Where Does Our Breathing Go Wrong?
Zi attributes shallow breathing to trauma and fashion. "When you are a child, and are sent to bed without dinner, or when you are afraid, you hold the breath. So the child goes to bed angry, sad or tense, and holds the breath. We lose that innate ability of pumping with the stomach. The lungs should just be a container; when we use them as a pump, they become overburdened and the muscles get tight; everything is restricted." Zi observes that frequently, asthma can develop as a result of such constriction.
Adults also can lose the capacity for deep core breathing from a traumatic emotional experience, or physical pain. "When we are in pain," Zi explains, "we want as little movement as possible. This again restricts breathing; later, when you are well, your breath may remain shallow."
In addition, modern fashion teaches us to "suck in our tummies" and have flat abdominal muscles. This type of posture, which Zi calls the "statue," also contributes to shallow breathing.
"This is such a mistaken attitude," she says. "The abdominal area contains the most vital organs, and we must let it pulse. When you tense your stomach all the time, like a perfect statue, you create lower back tension, stiffness and pain."
If posture is when we look like a model statue, texture is when we are flexible, extendible, stretchable, nimble, opening up and closing. "You allow the front of the chest, the back, the sides and the bottom of the torso to freely expand," Zi explains.
To test your flexibility, stand in the "saddle" position so that you stand with feet apart, and then bend down so your knees spread outward, opening the lower torso. "We need to be more like a pagoda — an anchored pagoda, with a stable bottom, not top-heavy," says Zi. That way, you can’t be knocked over. "Shallow breathers are top-heavy and are teetering around through life."
Breathing Posture v. Texture
When you breathe with your abdomen, you create a center; when you have a center, you are more confident and coordinated; when you have confidence, you have much more potential and are not afraid of challenges. In effect, you are bringing back the potential that God gave you. You are not afraid anymore.
And this potential can be put to use in many arenas, from music to ballet, calligraphy to equestrian sports, archery to cycling. "Once you learn it, you can apply it to anything," says Zi.
Working with the breath for even brief periods each day can bring a new sense of internal balance, says Dennis Lewis.
"You don’t have to work with the breath all the time, day in and day out. He recommends starting out by spending "20 or 30 minutes a day sensing and observing your breath." His Ten Secrets of Authentic Breathing is worth printing out and keeping handy for quick reference.
In her book and video set, Zi takes the student through 24 exercises comprising six lessons. "Give it 30 days and you’ll have it," she maintains.
She suggests doing about four exercises per lesson, devoting about 10 minutes to each lesson. Do each exercise three times for three days; then go to Lesson 2 and add the new ones, reviewing previous ones as needed. Even people recovering from surgery or in wheelchairs can adapt these exercises to their needs.
When you can learn to follow the breath to your center, to your core, and open the lotus blossom, "Your thought goes there and you quiet down. Otherwise your mind will be flitting and fluttering. It’s a bringing together of the breath, and then you can bring together your thoughts, and everything becomes not that drastically important.
"Your new car, the new dress are not that important anymore when you look into yourself and follow your mind to the center. It’s really what meditation is about."
"Many times, however, people try to do it the reverse way: "You try to meditate, and then you breathe better; whereas if you learn to breathe first and then you do everything else, it’s much, much easier."
Remember, you are breathing right now. Every day, you have 20,000 opportunities to transform how you breathe and enhance your health and well-being.
The Art and Science of Breathing
Three Breathing Exercises
"Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders."
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Since breathing is something we can control and regulate, it is a useful tool for achieving a relaxed and clear state of mind. I recommend three breathing exercises to help relax and reduce stress: The Stimulating Breath, The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise (also called the Relaxing Breath), and Breath Counting. Try each and see how they affect your stress and anxiety levels.
The Stimulating Breath (also called the Bellows Breath)
The Stimulating Breath is adapted from a yogic breathing technique. Its aim is to raise vital energy and increase alertness.
- Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise.
- Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellows. Breathe normally after each cycle.
- Do not do for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute.
If done properly, you may feel invigorated, comparable to the heightened awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest and the abdomen. Try this breathing exercise the next time you need an energy boost and feel yourself reaching for a cup of coffee.
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
This exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.
If you want to get a feel for this challenging work, try your hand at breath counting, a deceptively simple technique much used in Zen practice.
Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let the breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Ideally it will be quiet and slow, but depth and rhythm may vary.
- To begin the exercise, count "one" to yourself as you exhale.
- The next time you exhale, count "two," and so on up to "five."
- Then begin a new cycle, counting "one" on the next exhalation.
Never count higher than "five," and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself up to "eight," "12," even "19."
Try to do 10 minutes of this form of meditation.