“I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” –Sylvia Plath
It is the first thing we do when we are born, and the last thing we do before we die. If we live a normal lifespan, we will do it 650 million times. Most of the time we don’t think about it at all. We just breathe. It is as simple as that, but so crucial to our survival that even though we could live for a month without food and a week without water, we could only forgo taking a breath for a couple of minutes. It is one of our most powerful bodily functions, and we take it for granted 24,000 times a day.
Yogis in India have been practicing Pranayama, the science of breath control, for thousands of years, but only fairly recently have scientists begun to unravel the link between how we breathe and our health. Dr. Gay Hendricks, author of Conscious Breathing, writes that “if you can learn to breathe even a little better, you will notice immediate, profound shifts in your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.”
“If you woke up breathing, congratulations! You have another chance.” –Andrea Boydston
Unfortunately, most of us don’t reap the benefits provided by our breath, because we don’t do it right. You would think that something as simple and automatic as breathing would be pretty easy to master, but most people breathe incorrectly. Says Hendricks, “the human body is designed to discharge 70 percent of its toxins through breathing. If your breathing is not operating at peak efficiency, you are not ridding yourself of toxins properly. . .(and) other systems of your body, such as your kidneys, must work overtime. This overtime work can set the stage for a number of illnesses.”
Take a moment to notice your breathing without changing it. When you inhale is your chest moving or your abdomen? Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth?
If your chest swelled with air when you took a breath, you are not alone. Many people are chronic chest breathers. The danger of chest breathing is that it’s labor intensive, stress inducing, and ultimately depleting of your energy. Chest breathing leaves you in a state of mild hyperventilation, and this imbalance forces your heart to work harder. A study conducted in a Minneapolis hospital explored the link between chest breathers and heart attack victims. Researchers were shocked to discover that all 153 cardiac patients in the study were chest breathers. Seventy percent of these patients were mouth breathers as well, the second breathing habit that sabotages mental and physical health.
“The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating.” –Proverb
Ayurvedic medicine practitioner, John Douillard, writes in his book Body, Mind, and Sport, that we are born “obligate nose breathers.” In other words, we don’t have the voluntary ability to breathe through our mouths. “Mouth breathing is a learned response triggered by emergency stress,” says Douillard. We open our mouths to inhale large quantities of oxygen when faced with a crisis situation. As we get older, and are bombarded by daily stressors or develop allergies or asthma, mouth breathing becomes a habit. Check right now: Are you breathing through your mouth as you read this?
If you are, close your mouth because the benefits of nasal breathing are plentiful and can be, according to Douillard, life changing, even life saving. “Deep nasal breathing facilitates a feeling of calm that I call the eye of the storm,” says Douillard. Nasal breathing automatically shifts chest breathers into abdominal breathers. He says that nasal breathing will also boost your energy. Researchers have found that the reason people suffer from fatigue during colds, sinus infections, or allergy attacks is because the forced mouth breathing due to blocked nasal passages depletes energy. Nasal breathing also helps keep illness at bay. In the aftermath of a smallpox outbreak aboard a ship at sea, it was discovered the only common denominator of those who did not contract the illness was that they were all nasal breathers.
Douillard, a former professional athlete, even recommends nasal breathing during exercise and competition to improve performance. He says that nasal breathing has been practiced for thousands of years around the world to increase endurance. In some cultures, runners were asked to run to the top of a mountain and back with a handful of pebbles in their mouth. Another training technique required runners to take a mouthful of water at the beginning of a long run and spit that same water out at the finish line. Of course, to accomplish either of these feats, the trainees had to breathe through their nose as they ran.
“Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again.” –L. Frank Baum
Aside from the physical benefits of breathing correctly, there are also great psychological advantages to being conscious of at least a few breaths a day. Dr. Andrew Weil, author of the bestselling 8 Weeks to Optimum Health, is a big believer in the power of breath. He writes, “Breathing exercises are a wonderful way to reduce anxiety, agitation, and stress, while promoting relaxation, calm, and inner peace. By simply focusing your attention on your breath, and without doing anything to change it, you can move in the direction of relaxation.”
The Happy Self, a website dedicated to promoting “personal transformation for thinking people,” suggests a 100 Breath Challenge. The premise is simple. Take one hundred breaths in a row. No problem, right? After all we take 24,000 breaths in a 24-hour period, how hard can it be to be aware of a mere one hundred breaths? I suggest you try it right now.
How did it go? I, personally, have trouble getting past the number seven without my mind skittering off into a million different directions. And this is after several years of fairly regular meditation practice.
Because I am saddled with the most uncooperative mind, “monkey mind” to use a Buddhist terms, I tend to need breathing exercises that require a bit more engagement than just shifting my awareness to my breath or simply counting. The book Your Hands Can Heal You by Stephen Co and Eric B. Robins teaches a technique they call “Master Breathing Technique.”
Inhale slowly and silently through your nose as you count to seven. Hold for one count. Exhale slowly and silently through your nose for seven counts. Hold for one count. Repeat the entire cycle five times.
Co explains that despite the simplicity of this breathing method, it is a powerful tool. He says it can decrease tension, improve sleep, detoxify your body, clear negative energy, and even cure disease.
“You only need to breathe consciously one or two times and you will recover your smile.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
As I have been writing this essay about breathing, I have been practicing inhaling through my nose and extending my exhale, as recommended by Dennis Lewis in his book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life. Lewis says, “The long exhalation helps turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, your ‘relaxation’ response.” The nice thing about this technique is that since it is so quiet and easy, I can do it anywhere, at my desk, while making dinner, even while driving. After a week of extending my exhale whenever I thought about it, and shutting my mouth whenever I caught myself mouth breathing, I feel more relaxed and focused. The nagging stress that has been plaguing me for months has disappeared.
Excited, I retrieve my favorite book of breathing techniques called The Little Book of Yoga Breathing by Scott Shaw from my shelf. This slim volume is packed with easy to follow breath exercises. Shaw divides the breathwork into two categories: energy-enhancing and calming.
One afternoon before I left to pick up the girls from school, I decided to try an energy- enhancing practice called Bellows Breathing. Shaw describes it has having “rapid energy revitalization.” After I got the hang of it, it was quite simple. Close your mouth and rapidly inhale and exhale through your nose ten times. Keep these breaths shallow. The main focus is to push each exhalation out rapidly. At the completion of ten quick “bellows” draw a deep breath in through your nose. Bend your neck forward and allow your chin to rest close to your chest. Hold this deep breath for as long as possible. Raise your head and then release the breath through your nose. Repeat for three cycles.
I only had time for one cycle before I had to leave the house, but I found myself running my errand with great speed. In the parking lot of the school I bounced from car to car like Tigger on speed, and more than one person commented that I seemed to have an awful lot of energy. I realized that the bellows breathing had worked almost too well, I was as wired as if I’d just drunk a pot of coffee.
“There is a way of breathing/ that’s a shame and a suffocation./ And there’s another way of expiring,/ a love breath, that lets you open infinitely.” –Rumi
Freedivers practice the art of breath control to lengthen the time they can stay underwater without the use of air tanks. For some, this can be as long as ten minutes. Dr. James Funderbunks, in his book Science Studies Yoga, describes how a 67-year-old yogi weighing a mere 106 pounds, wrapped a 3/8 inch metal chain around his waist and feet and after a short breath exercise, pushed his feet against the chain and shattered it. Scientists have discovered that slow focused breathing triggers an increase in dopamine, a chemical which keeps the central nervous system running smoothly. Deep breathing decreases activity in the frontal lobe of the brain where we tend to create deep grooves of anxiety by replaying repetitive negative thoughts. Nasal breathing increases the release of nitric oxide in the body which assists in lowering anxiety, especially when in intense social interactions.
Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s the most simple thing we do, but as Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When we breath consciously, we recover ourselves completely and encounter life.”