THE SECRET OF BREATHING FOR HEALTH, ENERGY,
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.
Breathing awareness and techniques can markedly reduce stress, vitalize body systems, balance mind and emotions, increase energy, and foster longevity.
I am not alone in thinking this: Well known alternative and complementary physician Andrew Weill has written in his books that the most important modality for the well being of body, mind, and spirit is not diet, exercise, or positive thinking but conscious breathing.1 He practices daily and suggests to all his patients and students that they do the same
My interest in breathing came about by practice and teaching yoga for many years. Often I would meet students after they had completed instruction from me, sometimes many years later. I would ask them if they were still practicing yoga and if they had benefited from my classes. I was surprised by their answers. It was the breathing that had influenced them the most. Many had stopped attending yoga classes or even doing it on their own. But they were doing conscious breathing for practical reasons such as relaxation, stress reduction, falling asleep, and coping with anxiety.
I do deep breathing as much as possible whenever I become aware of tense muscles, breath holding, racing thoughts, an upset mind, and energy depletion. I do it often between sessions in my psychotherapy practice, as well as during the sessions. I use it for a relaxation break whenever needed and practical. I do it sitting, lying on my back, but mostly while walking. It can be done walking up and down steps, to and from the car, in public transportation places, and leisurely in parks, trails, and hills.
Because of the pressures of life, much of our waking time is spent in varying states of anxiety, fear, worry, concern, and fatigue. When someone sees us in these states, it is not uncommon for them to say: “Why not take a death breath and relax”?
Undue stress is an arch enemy to bodily well-being and peace of mind.2
Research has shown that stress can be a leading cause or make worse many illnesses such as ulcerative colitis, heart disease, headaches, asthma, high blood pressure, and degenerative diseases.
The best antidote to undue stress to invoke the “relaxation response” as much as possible in daily life.3
The relaxation response is a physical and mental state marked by deeper breathing, slower pulse rate, normal blood pressure, relaxed muscles, and calming of body and mind. It is just the opposite of “fight or flight” physical and mental effects of undue stress such as tight muscles, rapid shallow breathing, rapid pulse, holding the breath, high blood pressure, repetitive thoughts, and anxiety.
Most of us have experienced the relaxation response at times: as we doze off to sleep, during dreamless peaceful sleep, during a massage, during and after meditation, in the presence of a loved one, in 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 to bring on the relaxation response is much more practical. Any breathing technique that can shift the breath away from quick, shallow, chest breathing to slower, deep, and more efficient breathing will work. Your breath is always near you, silent. It does not require any equipment or particular place.
When you desire relaxation all you need do is pause from the pressures of everyday life to alter your state of breathing. Many of the exercises in this article can be used when you are walking, in an elevator, listening to a boring lecture, sitting in an airplane, and lying in a dentist’s chair or hospital bed. You can do them whenever you are waiting for someone or before some event. This could be waiting in a doctor’s office, at the airport, or in a bank line.
Deep breathing can allay performance anxiety in public speaking or in speaking up in small groups. At a business meeting or interview, since breathing is silent (except if snoring) and visibly unnoticed by others, it is a practical way to calm the mind. It can be done on business breaks.
Conscious deep breathing can be a calming effect as a preface to and bridge to meditation, as well as an object of meditation itself. This article is about breathing techniques and not meditation on the breath, but I will say that the breath as an object of meditation is auspicious because of its inherent qualities of softness, quietness, rhythm, and peace. Mindfulness meditation practiced by American Buddhists focuses on breath in sitting meditation.
I believe that breath meditation, as well as other forms of meditation, is a more difficult way to achieve the relaxation response than conscious breathing. Meditating involves mind struggle to control distracting thoughts and feelings. Whereas you just do breathing exercises without mental strain.
Deepening the breath upon awakening in the morning is a good way to start the day with relaxation and calmness. One writer on health issues recommends taking three deep breaths every morning before getting out of bed.4 Deep breathing can be done before going to sleep at night or if you find it difficult to fall asleep after waking up in the night.
The relaxing effect of deep breathing can ease body discomforts such as tension headaches, stomach upsets, and backaches. Many of my yoga students would come to a yoga class with such conditions. By the end of the class the aches were gone. I am convinced that it was the breathing part of the class that allowed this. I know this because on many occasions I have achieved the same relief within five or ten minutes of deep breathing usually while lying on my back.
Imagery and visualization healing experts Martin Rossman, MD, Bella Naperstek, LCSW, and Gerald Epstein, MD all include breathing methods in their clinical healing practices to relax patients before imagery. Breath work is often used as an adjunctive tool in massage, hypnotherapy, biofeedback, and various psychotherapy practices for the same purpose.