“The simplest and most powerful technique for protecting your health is breathing,” Dr. Andrew Weil director of the Integrative Medicine Program, University of Arizona.
We can survive weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air. Breathing is so integral to every moment of our life that we almost take it for granted. One might assume that breathing is so simple that there is not much to it. In one sense that is correct. However, like everything else in life, you find that once you direct your awareness toward it, you can learn from the process and make improvements to unconscious habits. Take in a deep breath right now… and then completely release it. Notice how you immediately feel more relaxed.
Breathing awareness has been valued by many cultures for millennia. For example prana, a central concept in Eastern medicine and Yoga, is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘breath’ and refers to a vital, life-sustaining force of living beings. Qi, a fundamental concept in traditional Chinese medicine, literally translates as “air” or “breath”. Virtually all forms of meditation use focus on breathing to as a central starting point, and the practice of slow, deep breathing is used extensively here in the west in virtually all relaxation techniques. To our detriment, our modern fast-paced lifestyle keeps most of us in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Concentration on breathing is an extremely effective way to move us out of stress and into a relaxed state.
Many studies have shown the effectiveness of healthy breathing techniques. One study, which examined “belly breathing”, found that menopausal women who learned the technique were able to reduce the frequency of hot flashes by 50 percent. Another study showed that chronic pain patients who learned mind-body breathing techniques reduced clinic visits by 36 percent for more than two years after the classes. Deep diaphragmatic breathing and other mind-body techniques have been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of severe PMS as well as anxiety, depression and other forms of emotional distress, according to research by Alice Domar, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
There are several different breathing techniques that one can practice. In essence, the general aim of all of them is to shift from chest breathing to abdominal breathing. Begin with a quiet, relaxed environment where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably and raise your ribcage to expand your chest. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take notice of how your upper chest and abdomen are moving while you breath. Concentrate on your breath and try to breathe in and out gently through the nose. Your upper chest and stomach should be still, allowing the diaphragm to work more efficiently with your abdomen, and less with your chest. With each breath, allow any tension in your body to slip away. Once you are breathing slowly and with your abdominal muscles, sit quietly and enjoy the sensation of physical relaxation. Slow deep breathing is an important technique to practice. Once you have mastered it, you can recall it in any stressful situation to move your body out of stress mode.
Here in the west, a full chest is often viewed as a model of health. In the east, the happy Buddha with his relaxed belly sits as a counterpoint to that. A relaxed abdomen might mean less activity on your dance card, but is likely to pay health dividends.
As a health professional I can guarantee you that virtually everyone reading this article could benefit from improved breathing habits. Give it some thought and then breathe easy.