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
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
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