The Breath

by Julie M. Simons, LCSW, ACSW

"When the breath is disturbed, the mind is disturbed. When the breath is calmed, the mind becomes steady."

--Hatha Yoga Pradipika

We can go without food and water for a long period of time, but only minutes without the breath. Therefore, it is amazing how little attention we pay in normal life to the importance of breathing correctly. As babies and young children, we breathed deeply with our entire body. But many people have forgotten how to breathe properly and our sedentary work environments and lifestyles, coupled with the stress of busy lives, have conditioned most of us to fast, shallow breathing. This type of breathing restricts the breath to our upper chest and can ultimately undermine our health, decrease our vitality and compromise our ability to appropriately cope with mental, physical and emotional stress. But before discussing how to identify harmful breathing patterns and strategies to implement healthier habits, it important to first examine how our breathing affects our physical bodies and emotional states.

Shallow breathing, through the mouth, lifts the shoulders and contracts the diaphragm on the inhalation. When this occurs, only a small amount of oxygen is taken, using just the top of the lungs.

The diaphragm is a large, sheet-like flat muscle that lies underneath the lungs at the lower part of the chest area. It works like a bellow that stokes a fire, expanding when filled with oxygen (inhale) and expelling air by deflation (exhale). The inhale expands the abdomen, moving the diaphragm down and massaging the abdominal organs; while the exhale contracts the abdomen, moving the diaphragm up and massaging the heart.

Unfortunately, most of us breathe without involving the diaphragm at all and use only one-third of our lungs. This serves to limit oxygen in the body. When an insufficient amount of fresh air reaches your lungs, your blood is not properly purified or oxygenated. Lack of oxygen can result in a low level of vitality and resistance to disease. Poorly oxygenated blood also contributes to anxiety states, depression and fatigue and makes stressful situations harder to cope with.

Stress is a powerful mind-body phenomenon; it initiates interactions between the brain, nervous system and endocrine system that initiates shallow breathing which restricts oxygen. When faced with stress, oxygen deprivation switches on the nervous system's "fight or flight" mechanism, creating a physical sensation of nervous arousal, while triggering a feeling of fear, inhibiting concentration and sometimes creating a sense of unreality or detachment. As prehistoric beings, we needed the ability to respond quickly to danger of attack; to, in effect, prepare our body to run or fight by tensing the muscles and limiting our depth of breath. Today, this biologically reflexive reaction is referred to as the stress response, and can be set into motion by daily events such as a traffic jam, a deadline, a homework assignment or any other situation that is subjectively perceived as threatening to our well-being.

To counteract stress and enhance oxygen intake, it is helpful to stretch the neck muscles, because the neck can block oxygen to the brain. Begin by slowly moving your left ear to your left shoulder while keeping the spine straight. Hold it at the point where you feel a significant stretch. To extend the stretch, extend your right arm down reaching your fingers toward the floor while resting your left hand on the top of the head near the right ear. Then switch sides. Notice your breathing as you perform this exercise. Many people have a tendency to even hold their breath without being aware of it, especially those that suffer with anxiety, depression, panic attacks or other emotional disorders.

People with emotional disorders can benefit greatly by working on proper breathing. Dr. Ronald Ley, a professor of psychology and hyperventilation researcher at the State University of New York in Albany, speculates that oxygen shortages in the brain trigger a subconscious feeling of suffocation that leads to 'irrational thoughts and feelings of imminent doom.' Chronic breathing, also known as over-breathing can contribute to feelings of anxiety, panic and fear. Though it is hard to detect those with this problem, some clues are identified as a tendency to gasp or sigh regularly, especially during speaking, and a rising and falling of the upper chest when one is at rest (in healthy breathing, it is the abdomen that moves).

To get an idea of your own breathing pattern, count your breaths for a minute or two. If you took more than 14 to 16 breaths a minute, you're breathing faster than what's considered healthy at 6 to 10 breaths a minute. Now observe the movement of your chest and abdomen as you breathe. If your chest moves more than your abdomen, chances are you are over-breathing. A contributing factor often associated with over-breathing is chronic tension is the muscles of the chest, back, neck and shoulders. The tension interferes with the normal breathing action of the diaphragmatic muscle.

You may have noticed that when you are angry or scared, your breathing is shallow, rapid and irregular. When you are relaxed or deep in thought, your breathing becomes slow. You can test this by listening for a moment to the lowest sound in the room. In concentrating, you may notice that you unconsciously slowed your breathing. So if your state of mind is reflected in the way you breathe, then it makes sense that by controlling the breath you can control your state of mind.

One way to develop a clear and calm state of mind is by regulating the Autonomic Nervous System through the breath. An easy exercise to practice basic breathing involves sitting comfortably and placing your hands on your chest, thumbs touching the armpits, with middle fingers touching each other at the center of the chest. Notice, when breathing normally, the middle fingers move slightly apart. Exaggerate that movement by breathing very deeply and allow the middle fingers to move apart as the chest expands. Repeat this for two or three minutes at a time.

There are three types of breathing: clavicular (shallow), intercostal (middle) and abdominal (deep) breathing. A full breath should combine all three. If you can visualize the breathe as liquid being poured into a glass, you will imagine the bottom (diaphragm) gets full first, taking time in pouring, into the middle of the glass (lower lungs) all the way up to the top (upper lungs).

There are three steps to full breathing: Inhalation (to a count of four); Retention/Holding (to a count of four); and Exhalation (to a count of eight). When practicing full breathing, it important to breathe through the nose. This warms air to body temperature before it gets to the lungs, which can help the body use oxygen more effectively. Also the little hairs in our nose collects dirt, dust and bacteria which helps ward off infection. In addition, it is more soothing to the body and it more controlled and slower than exhaling through the mouth. The olfactory nerves connect to the brain and full breathing can stimulate the relaxation response in the Central Nervous System. Breathing through the mouth will not create this response.

You will notice that the exhalation in full breathing is twice as long as the inhalation or retention. In the Eastern population in general, the exhalation has been found to be much longer than the inhalation. It is suggested that this is because they have much more practice in the art of surrendering. The exhale is associated with the act of letting go, of releasing control. We in the West have little trouble with holding on -- to tension, to people, to material things, etc. but the act of surrendering is often a difficult one. In addition, the emphasis on proper exhalation may provide biological benefits as well. It has been suggested that proper exhalation can aid in digestion, while improper exhalation can cause waste products to be kept in circulation, creating a higher level of toxicity in the body.

It may not be easy to lengthen the exhale at first, and you may find yourself exhaling quickly despite an effort to extend it. Initial discomfort may be caused by lungs that are used to expanding, not contracting, and diaphragmatic muscles that are not familiar with movement. It will take some practice. But the practice of the breath exercises the internal muscles, massages the internal organs and provides a feeling of peace, tranquility, and balance. Also important to keep in mind with any of the exercises included here is that the body has a cellular memory, so once you begin the practice of proper breathing, your body will remember it. Therefore, even if you do not practice regularly, you can return to it anytime.

As the mind-body expert Deepak Chopra has said, the first step to change is awareness. So it follows then that just the awareness of the breath can lead to a shift in unhealthy breathing patterns and bring about a greater sense of physical and emotional well-being.

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