How many deep and conscious belly breaths do you take every day?
My bet is you take very few, if any. You are not alone. By failing to pause and take a deep breath, you are doing your body, mind and spirit a disservice and may even be contributing to poor health.
In the Western world, we live a mostly sedentary, plugged-in life punctuated by an incessant stream of stimuli demanding our attention at every turn – social media, email, text messages, television, traffic and hyper-competitiveness at work, to name a few. As a result, our mind and body are constantly and unconsciously pushed into “fight or flight” mode, an automatic body response regulated by our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that is associated with a shallow, chest-level, high-frequency breathing pattern.
While our “fight or flight” response is a great latent gift we possess, problems arise when we spend most of our waking (and sometimes even sleeping) time in this mode.
By consistently staying in a heightened state of “fight or flight,” we create a biological imbalance and literally burnout our life force, or Prana, as we say in yoga. Have you ever felt so stressed, anxious and tired that you felt paralyzed? That’s your body response to a continuous injection of stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream at a great expense to our health, resulting in stress, anxiety and illnesses.
Fortunately, the SNS has a counterpart in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the other branch of our autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating our life functions and metabolism in the mode of calmness, low stress and high efficiency. The PNS, referred to as the “rest and renew” system in the body, can be activated by a modulation of the breath to reduce stress and restore relaxation and balance.
More specifically, full yogic breath (AKA diaphragmatic breathing), when practiced for at least few minutes, becomes a formidable antidote to stress. It sends signals to the brain that the body can let its guard down, giving a green light to the PNS.
The diaphragm is the main muscle used in breathing. By consciously “pulling” the breath deep into the belly during inhalation, the diaphragm contracts under the rib cage, stretching the lungs so they receive more oxygen. This oxygen flows into the blood stream, providing more fuel to the muscles and allowing the heart to beat slower. In turn, the brain responds by reducing the amount of stress hormones, ultimately decreasing the “fight or flight” response. Let’s give it a try.
Implement these basic instructions to practice a full yogic breath
- Lay in a supine posture (on your back).
- As you begin to inhale, breathe deeply into the belly. Focus on the area around and below the navel. Place your hand there. The pelvic floor widens and expands in all directions like a barrel. There is no bloating of the abdomen.
- Once the belly is filled with air, smoothly draw the breath up into the rib-cage area. The floating ribs and rib cage all lift and expand.
- When the ribs are completely filled, continue to draw the breath into the upper chest area. Place your other hand there. The breath rises to the heart and sternum, finally reaching the collarbones, which lifts and expands laterally.
- You will experience a fullness of the breath in all the three parts of the lungs. There is an expansion from the pelvic floor to the collarbones and breath in the front and back of the body.
This inhalation cycle is done at a slow count of four or five, extending the count as you gain more easiness into the practice. The breath is smooth and even, so the mind can ride on the surface of the breath finding calmness and stillness.
- To begin your exhalation, draw the lower belly in first. The diaphragm moves up and the belly pulls in toward the spine. The inner organs relax.
- The pelvic floor gently draws in and up.
- The rib cage draws in and the collarbones move down while the air is released from each area.
- The breath is released bottom to top (belly to upper chest).
This exhalation cycle is done at a slow count of four or five to create evenness between the inhalation and exhalation. Breathe through the nostrils. Mouth closed. Jaw relaxed.
In yoga, we practice this breath to dive into our PNS, which brings us into a mode of calmness, devoid of stress. Then we add more advanced breathing control techniques (pranayamas) and postures (asanas) to move into stillness and practice how to dance into the fire of life from a place of balance and real strength. However, you don’t have to be a Yogi to reap the benefits of this practice.
Start with the simple, yet challenging breathing practice, described above. Even 10 minutes a day of this exercise will show up and pay off in your life.
The next time you feel stressed or anxious, close your eyes and take a moment to connect to your breath. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel after only a few deep, belly breaths. You may even want to make this breathing practice part of your daily health and fitness routine. Even 10 minutes a day will show up and pay off in your life. You will feel more grounded, more energized and more prepared to tackle whatever life has in store for you.