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Breathing 101: Improving Life’s Most Basic Activity

“Remember to breathe. It is after all, the secret of life.”― Gregory Maguire,  A Lion Among Men

breathingBreathing is the most important physical activity that any of us do, or ever will do. More important than anything else, yet often taken for granted, overlooked, underappreciated, and abused. You’ve been doing it your entire life, you couldn’t stop doing it if you tried, and you think you’re pretty good at it. After all, you’re still doing it aren’t you? Yeah, you are, but there’s a lot you can do to improve this overlooked ability, and there are a lot of benefits to doing it correctly that you’ve probably never even considered. Don’t worry, it’s never too late to improve on any skill that you have, and breathing is no different.

Oxygen is the most important fuel that we take in. It’s often said that man can survive for three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without breathing. While I’m not sure if this is true, it wouldn’t seem so with food and water, it seems a pretty safe bet that not breathing for three minutes would be devastating. We consciously respond to our needs for food and water. We don’t have to think about breathing. It just happens, and happens, and happens again. You’ve been doing it on the average of 16 to 17 times per minute your entire life. You’d think that something that has been practiced so often, and so diligently, would have been perfected by now. Unfortunately, this is probably not the case. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/brief-history-breathing/ )

When you were an infant, you were actually better at this skill than you are now. It’s one of the few life skills that are perfect initially. If you ever watched an infant DSC2379-490x490sleeping, you may have noticed that the way they breathe is different than the way most of us adults breathe. They breathe from their abdomen, rhythmically, deeply, each breath marked by the steady in and out movement of the belly. The chest barely moves, if at all. Puppies and dogs breathe the same way. If you have a dog, watch the way it breathes as it sleeps on its side. Nothing moves except the belly. This is the way we were meant to breathe. It’s also the way you originally breathed.

What caused the change in such an instinctive and natural activity? Over the course of a lifetime, we all learn to respond to external stressors, constantly reacting and anticipating outside events in a “what’s next?” and “what just happened?” manner. As we do so, our bodies contract in anticipation and reaction, tensing and relaxing continuously as we adjust to what’s going on, or what we think is going on, in our environment. This tensing and contracting is our sympathetic nervous system adjusting and allowing us to function in response to stressful situations. Sometimes, the parasympathetic nervous system, whose purpose is to counterbalance this heightened level of arousal, has a hard time getting us back to normal. Our sympathetic nervous system, the part of us that gets us back to a state of equilibrium or balance, may have a hard time getting us there. If I’ve just lost you with this jargon, don’t worry, it’s pretty simple. When we tense up, either physically or mentally, our muscles tense, our shoulders rise, neck and arms tighten, and we breathe in our upper chest, resulting in labored and ineffective breathing.

Deep breathing, from the abdomen, is the best way to train the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, allowing our entire being to get back to the state of equilibrium where we can function at an optimal level. A natural side effect of breathing deeply from the abdomen is that you take in more oxygen and, as a result, immediately find that you have more physical endurance. When we breathe from the upper chest, we are only using approximately 2/3 of our lung capacity. Abdominal breathing pushes the diaphragm down, pushes the belly out, and allows the lower third of the lungs to fill, maximizing our lung capacity. Next time you are climbing a flight of stairs or doing something physically taxing, try some abdominal breathing and you will notice that you have more endurance immediately. This is the single most important thing you can do to increase your physical endurance.

Abdominal breathing is easy to learn and is a relaxing, yet energizing activity, that you should practice frequently. I teach this to clients in the office in the following manner:
“Sit comfortably in the chair, finding a posture that feels right. Place your hands on your lap, allowing your hands to rest on your lower abdomen around the level of your navel. Now relax your shoulders and notice your breathing. Don’t force or change it, rather gently notice it. You may find it helpful to close your eyes, allowing you to pay closer attention to your breathing. (virtually everybody closes their eyes at this point) Notice your breathing, and notice how your shoulders, neck, and chest begin to lose all their tension. Again, don’t force your breathing, just notice. (I usually do this with them, my hands on my abdomen, demonstrating the technique) Notice how, as you breathe deeply and slowly, your hands begin to move in and out on your abdomen. (at this point there is usually some movement of the hands. The word notice here becomes a suggestion which they take, improving the technique) Now just relax, and follow your breath…..”

With some clients, and you may be in this category, it’s helpful to ask them to silently count the breaths in sets of 10, never hurrying or forcing it, just counting on every exhale. When 10 is reached, start over again and repeat the process as long as you desire. Doing this daily trains your parasympathetic nervous system to respond more efficiently and effectively in the face of real and imagined stressors. It is a great way to de-stress, even if only for a few moments during the day. It also is a great way to drift off to sleep if you lie on your back, place your hands or even a small book on your navel, and relax into your breathing.

I have to admit, that for many of my clients, I use a little deception when promoting this skill. When I suggest to some of my clients the idea of meditation, I can tell right away if they are resistant to the idea. If they are, then I don’t tell them that this style of breathing is the essence of mindfulness meditation. That would increase their resistance, making it less likely for them to do it outside of the office. I also find that Seagalmen are more resistant to meditation than women. For the macho clients who wouldn’t be caught dead doing yoga or meditation, I launch into a spiel about abdominal breathing and the martial arts. I first learned diaphragmatic breathing 25 years ago when I started practicing uechi ryu karate do, an Okinawan martial art that has a strong wellness component to it. I tell my clients that diaphragmatic breathing lowers their center of gravity, which it does, giving them a stronger physical base and potential for strength. I ask them to try some abdominal breathing next time they find themselves doing something physical that causes them to get out of breath. Never fails, they’re usually sold on abdominal breathing because it does work. And, if Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, and Chuck Norris practiced it, it’s got to be manly, right?

Begin to utilize these strategies immediately. Unlike a lot of things that you can do to improve your mind and body, proper breathing has immediate, instant benefits. It can improve your energy, provides greater endurance during physical activity, exercise, or sports. It is also meditation and can slow down both mind and body, thus improving your mental focus and concentration. Start small, focusing on breathing from the abdomen and within a short few weeks you won’t be able to breathe any other way. Your health, mental clarity, and energy levels will be noticeably improved. There’s no excuse not to do this, after all you’ve been doing it all along.

“Patience is learning to take a deep breath while you’re exhaling.”-Josh Stern

 

(There is a video tutorial on this topic, which you can access through the YouTube button to the right of this post.)

 

John

P. S. Contact me if interested in online mindbody coaching or cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at john@mindbodycoach.org.

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