By Michael Issacs,MSW, NCPsyA, JD

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If I ask someone to take a deep breath, they will usually inhale with a quick gulp, lift shoulders, and move upper chest rather than belly.  Then the breath is held. This is ineffective breathing for three reasons. First, it does not rid the lungs of used air. Second, the shoulders are not connected to the lungs so no air comes into the lungs. Third, it squeezes and contracts the lungs instead of expanding them.

Deep breathing is not only practical because it can be done in many places, times, and conditions. It is also convenient because it can be done in various body positions.

The most common way of positioning the body is sitting or lying on the back. Lying on the back has the advantage of relaxing the muscles because no energy is needed to support the frame.

Another way is to combine the breathing with movement. This may be easier and enjoyable than doing it in sedentary positions, particularly for those with a more active and restless nature. Some ways of doing this is are by walking, yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong.

Deep breathing while walking is a convenient way to coordinate deep breathing with movement. You can do this while walking to and from your car, up and down steps,  and in airports.  Coordinating steps with breathing can add focus and fun to conscious breathing. An example is two steps during each inhale and two steps during each exhale.

The yogi’s of old knew well the importance of emphasizing the exhale. As a general rule, they liked the ratio of exhaling twice as long as the inhale. In the above example that would mean two steps on inhale and four steps on exhale.

There is a method of breathing which further highlights exhalation that is longer in duration than the inhlation. Called breathplay, it was originated by American bicycle champion Ian Jackson. First the lungs are emptied with a slow exhalation from the mouth. At the end of the exhale, the abdominal muscles contract slightly and then there is little effort to inhale. Letting go of the effort to inhale allows oxygen to flow easily and fully into the lungs since nature abhors a vacuum.

Jackson labeled his form “breathplay” because he combined imagery with the breathing. One such image is “neon sign”- you visualize your spine lighting up as you exhale and turning off on the inhale.

To find out more about breathplay   you can visit the website of Betsy Thomason where you can download her training tape or CD.

Modalities such as yoga, feldenkreis, alexander technique, t’ai chi, qigong, massage, biofeedback, and meditation can make us aware of the physical and mental differences between poor and efficient breathing. You become more cognizant of how stress, tight muscles, and poor posture cause rapid breathing. Conversely, you become more aware of how peace of mind, stretching, relaxed muscles, and good posture lead to deeper inhalations and exhalations.

Yoga offers many specific breathing techniques which are centuries old. Combining yoga stretches with breathing is a great way to lengthen the breath through movement. The sun salutation and the cat stretch are two such movements. One of the fastest ways to deepen the breath and calm the nervous system is alternative nostril breathing.

Many yoga forms do not emphasize or even include breath awareness or practice in their instruction. If you are comfortable with doing yoga in a group, it is important to find the right yoga class and teacher. I recommend the styles of integral yoga, kripalu, and vinyasa which are more likely to include breathing in their classes.

Doing yoga in group is not for everyone. If that is the case, an ideal scenario would be to locate a yoga teacher or someone who has in depth knowledge about breathing concepts to teach you the simple rudiments via private lessons. Perhaps three or four sessions once a week would do it. After the basic lessons on how to breathe more efficiently, follow up visits are advised. This means returning periodically to the teacher to monitor your practice.

Qigong and t’ai chi practices induce deep breathing because there is an emphasis on soft and relaxed muscles. It is the effort of no effort. The less muscular tension the more energy can circulate through the meridians resulting in deep breathing.

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