By Michael Issacs,MSW, NCPsyA, JD

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One of the best kept secrets is the value of deep rhythmic breathing techniques for physical and mental heath.

Deep conscious breathing aids circulation, increases energy, enhances concentration, strengthens the immune system, and fosters longevity.

It is the quickest way to induce relaxation, with soothing music being a close second. Some of the effects of relaxation are slower breathing, heartbeat, and pulse rate, normal blood pressure, softer muscles, less thoughts, and a calmer mind.

The classic book that outlines the physical, mental, and spiritual manifestations of relaxation is THE RELAXATION RESPONSE (Avon(NY,NY), 1975 by Herbert Benson, MD

According to well known alternative and complementary physician Andrew Weill, the most important modality for the well being is not diet, exercise, or positive thinking but conscious breathing. He practices breathing exercises daily and suggests to all his patients and students to do the same.

My interest in breathing came about by practice and teaching yoga over many years. Often I would meet students after they had completed instruction, sometimes many years later. I would ask them if they were still practicing yoga and how they had benefited from their yoga experience. I was surprised by their answers. It was the breathing that had influenced them the most. Many had stopped attending yoga classes or doing it on their own. But they were still doing conscious breathing reasons for various wellness effects such as reducing tension in body and mind, sleeping better, reducing anxiety, controlling anger, lowering blood pressure, and in preventing and treating head and stomach aches.

Let’s consider how deep breathing helps us achieve moments of relaxation.

Most of us have experienced deep relaxation at certain times. Examples are before sleep, a massage, meditation, being in the arms of a loved one, enjoying nature, resting on our backs at the end of a yoga class, and gardening. As good as they are, however, these experiences can only be done at particular times and places.

But moving into a conscious breathing state is much more practical. Your breath is silent and always near you. It does not require any equipment or any particular place. All you need do is pause from the pressures of everyday life and shift from quick, shallow, chest breathing to slower, deep, and more efficient breathing. Deep breathing can be utilized when you are walking, standing in an elevator, listening to a boring lecture, sitting in an airplane, lying in a hospital bed, waiting in an airport, standing in a bank line, and before making a speech. You can do it while waiting for someone or before an event.

Shallow and rapid breathing is the WRONG way to breathe. Chest breathing empties only a tiny part of the existing air from the lungs, preventing new fresh air to enter.

The RIGHT way to breathe is to first move the belly muscles as you inhale rather than the chest muscles. The breath is then brought up slowly, gradually expanding the ribs, chest, shoulder, and neck areas, filling the lungs with air. On the exhalation, the air in the lungs is cleared by reversing the process. This has been called complete, abdominal, and diaphragmatic breathing. It is illustrated in two exercises on breathing in my website

Holding the breath is also the WRONG way to breathe. Most of us are not consciously aware of how often we do this. Prime times are when we may be under stress such as speaking on the telephone at work, communicating an emotionally charged subject, and before giving a speech. Holding the breath interrupts the natural rhythm of the breathing cycle and circulatory system. It creates undue pressure on chest muscles and heart.

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