Gasping for Air
I was an avid tennis player swatting the fuzz off those bright lime colored balls in the Southern California sun 2 hours a day, 7 days a week for years. At the time, I also worked 60-70 hours a week building my career in risk management from the ground up. On top of that, I had a fabulous relationship that was exciting and busy. We had loads of friends and were involved in numerous activities. It was a full life. I was living the dream, as they say, except for one thing .¨ I forgot to breathe.
Twenty-two thousand. That’s the average number of breaths we take each day and yet we know very little about the exhilarating power of breathing. In our busy 21st century lives, we are trapped in the vicious cycle of having and doing more than we are peacefully connecting with our body and our breath. The air we breathe is full of many things including nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), water vapor, argon and carbon dioxide. When we breathe in, the oxygen fills our lungs and is immediately transported throughout the rest of the body bringing life to all vital organs and the brain. The deeper we breathe, the more oxygen that is available to us. By contrast, shallow breathing short changes us on oxygen and while this may not seem like a big deal, it is.
Six. That is the number of breaths per minute the body needs to function optimally. But, like many of us, I was a shallow breather back in the old days, taking in nearly double the number of optimal breaths. I was going through my days, packing in as much as possible .¨busy, busy, busy. The busier I was the more breaths I took. I never really thought much about my breath or breathing patterns. I was focused on living the life I was taught would make me happy. I didn’t realize it was the kind of life that created and supported my unhealthy breathing patterns. And I didn’t know unhealthy breathing patterns could compromise my health.
Breathing incorrectly for three minutes can reduce the amount of oxygen to the body and the brain by up to 30%. It can also 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”. Poor breathing shifts our delicate pH system from more alkaline to more acidic, which in itself causes many preventable illnesses such as digestive disorders and the many diseases associated with inflammation and a compromised immune system. And acidity in the body is the principle cause of heart disease.
By contrast, deep breathing creates balance, or homeostasis, within the body. This helps our pH levels come into balance improving digestion and boosting our immune system. Circulation improves, which is a huge help to arthritis sufferers, and our endocrine system returns to normal improving metabolism. For heart disease sufferers, proper breathing raises blood oxygen levels which allow the body to begin healing your heart. It is obvious that optimal breathing brings optimal health. With that knowledge, we can become aware of the amazing life force we have within us and harness the power of proper breathing for a better-quality life experience.
Our Life Force
Remember the last time you laughed so hard you had tears in your eyes or smiled so much your face hurt, in a good way. Think back to that time and remember your breathing – was it easy to breathe? Did your breath flow without difficulty and did you feel lightness within you? When we are happy, life moves easily for us- this includes breathing. When we feel our best, our internal systems work the way they are supposed to and our body is in healing mode in every way.
By contrast, when we are stressed out, caught up in drama, angry or unwell, we feel off. Life is harder. That’s because stress, drama and anger are the kind of things that cause our systems to become unbalanced. For instance, anger makes our chest tight, increases our heart rate and makes us breathe faster and shallower. This means less oxygen for the body and the brain and less oxygen means compromised health. But, we don’t have to live that way. We have a life force within us that is aligned with the wishes of the body and the hopes of the heart- and that is to live well and to love.
Research has proven that proper breathing techniques can lower blood pressure and assist in reducing our stressful reactions to life by initiating the part of our central nervous system responsible for relaxation, balance and healing .¨ the parasympathetic nervous system. This turns off our sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, which is the system we use when we think everything is an emergency, even when it’s not. And most of it is not. In the book The Relaxation Response, Harvard researcher Herbert Benson used scientific research to show that focusing on breathing during short periods of meditation could alter the body’s stress response. In his new book, Relaxation Revolution, Benson’s research shows that breathing can even change the expression of genes. He says using your breath you can alter the basic activity of your cells with your mind. That means we have the power to heal ourselves which is exhilarating information, indeed.
Our breath is our life force. This is easily proven when we remember that we can go months without food, days without water, but only minutes without breathing. The ancient mystics and swamis understood the power of our breath to give life and heal life. Also known as chi or pranayama, the yogis of India developed a science around the techniques of breathing that would give specific healing results when applied over a set period of time. Still widely used in Chinese and other Eastern culture medicine, we are just beginning to see the true benefit of proper breathing techniques in the West. We can learn from our ancient friends just how to use this life force energy, or chi, to bring our body back in balance.
Practice Makes Peace
Each breath we take brings balance or imbalance to our body. Dr. Andrew Weil, an alternative health expert, 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.” It is amazing to me that as critical as proper breathing is to life and health that we aren’t taught this as a basic life skill at any point at home or in school. Imagine how much healthier the next generation would be if they were provided this key training. But, to do that, we need to train ourselves first.
We can start incorporating proper breathing techniques into our daily routine today. It is never too late to start. First, let’s see if you are a shallow breather like I was. Take this simple test to find out:
- Place your palms against your lower abdomen,
- Blow out all of the air you have in your lungs at this moment,
- Take a deep breath,
- Check to see if your abdomen expands with air – not just your chest, but your abdomen.
If your abdomen does not expand and your shoulders rise a bit or your chest fills with air, you are probably shallow breathing. If your abdomen expands, and I mean really fills up with air like a happy, rotund Buddha, then you are a deep breather. But, worry not. Anyone can learn to breathe properly for optimal health and healing.
Below you will find a simple technique to practice deep breathing borrowed from the American Medical Students Association. Keep in mind that there are many wonderful breathing techniques available that may suit you better. A moment on the internet will provide you with many choices. If one doesn’t work, try another one until you find what feels best for you. Don’t give up.
“Abdominal Breathing Technique”
- Breathing exercises such as this one should be done twice a day or whenever you find your mind dwelling on upsetting thoughts or when you are experiencing pain.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the one on the chest. This insures that the diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of the lungs.
- After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow deep breath in through your nose imagining that you are sucking in all the air in the room and hold it for a count of 7 (or as long as you are able, not exceeding 7) .
- Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from the lungs. It is important to remember that we deepen respirations not by inhaling more air but through completely exhaling it.
Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breaths and try to breathe at a rate of one breath every 10 seconds (or 6 breaths per minute). At this rate our heart rate variability increases which has a positive effect on cardiac health.
In general, exhalation should be twice as long as inhalation. The use of the hands on the chest and abdomen are only needed to help you train your breathing. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to breathe into the abdomen, they are no longer needed.” Also, remember to sit up straight. This allows you to fill your abdomen completely and allows oxygen to flow freely.
Breathing exercises can squelch worries, calm anxiety and panic attacks and help you sleep better. And proper breathing is a great waste eliminator so anything that is not needed or wanted is released with a good, deep, slow breath. As you gain confidence with your breathing technique, you can add words that enhance its beneficial effects. For instance, you can say a word like relaxation or love with inhalation and the word stress or anger with exhalation. This brings in what you want and gets rid of what you don’t.
Our breath and our heart are inextricably linked. As we take care to breathe, we are giving our heart just what it needs .¨ peace, gentleness and love. These are qualities of the heart that thrive when we pay attention to our breath, honoring it for the life giving force that it is. When we connect our body and mind, our heart and soul follow. This is one important part of truly living that brings us happiness and good health. Try your new breathing technique today and experience the life changing energy of this amazing force within us.