The Secret of Breathing For Health Energy and Relaxation*
By Michael Isaacs ,MSW, NCPsyA, JD
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
Let’s consider how deep breathing helps us achieve moments of relaxation.
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.
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 www.micahaelisaacs.net
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.
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 www.fitnessoutdoors.com 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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*Online article for Association of Spirituality and Psychotherapy
Michael S. Isaacs, LCSW, NCPSYA, JD, Berkeley and San Francisco, Ca.