Improve Your Breathing With Mindful Breathing
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
It is very hard to deny the body-mind connection and we should all be very well aware of this relationship to have happy and healthy lives. One of the things that directly impacts our sense of well-being is our breathing.
If you see people who are very stressed and uptight try and observe their breathing, you may see that many will be breathing very shallowly and mainly focused in the upper part of their chest. They are “chest” breathers. They are unnecessarily living with a subtle undercurrent of tension and anxiety.
The breath makes a direct impact on our psyche (nervous system) and on our overall sense of well-being. Rapid, shallow, and chaotic breathing can disturb many of our organisms fragile systems.
Young children truly show us the proper and natural way to breath, which is deep breathing by letting the belly expand gently. Just watch a baby sleep, doesn’t make you jealous seeing how peaceful they look?
The breath is such an important thing that the yogis developed a whole science based solely on the breath with their systems of “Pranyama” and “Swara Yoga“. These are very interesting and important topics that I will tackle later.
Belly Breathing is Correct Breathing
Why is a proper breathing technique so important? In the process of breathing, good tissue oxygenation requires that the oxygen from the air we breathe in to diffuse into the blood vessels passing through the lungs. To be in optimal health we need to make sure that an adequate air supply combines with our blood. How important is the oxygen in the blood? Well, just ask Lance Armstrong, he can attest to what a little more oxygen can do to enhance physical performance. Breathing deeply and from the belly ensures that we get a sufficient supply of oxygen into our blood stream. Slow, deep, and calm breaths also automatically bring down the amount of thoughts in your mind. Fewer thoughts = more peace and relaxation.
People who have developed the habit of breathing high from their chest reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the body, thereby lowering the acid content of their blood. The body reacts to this low acid or alkaline blood by narrowing the blood vessels in certain parts of the body. The result is a restriction in blood flow to the brain and certain other tissues. So as you can see a lack of oxygen in the brain can lead to a decrease in our cognitive abilities. Someone who breaths poorly is also more susceptible to triggering the body’s fight or flight response.
If you are using your diaphragm well, you will see your stomach gently expand on the in-breath, and relax back down on the out-breath. This is a subtle movement, but you can easy feel it by resting your hand on your abdomen while you breathe. Your abdomen should expand gently first, while your chest cavity may then expand very slightly if at all.
I feel that our fast-paced modern-day lifestyles may have contributed to the phenomenon of ‘Paradoxical breathing’ which is the opposite of belly-breathing (diaphragmatic breathing). The abdomen is drawn in during inhalation and then pushed out during exhalation, this is paradoxical breathing. Paradoxical breathing is marked by rapid, shallow breaths. Breathing like puts extra tension on the rib cage and shoulders. Paradoxical breathing can bring a whole host of health problems.
The neck, shoulders and inter-rib muscles have to work extra hard. Unlike diaphragmatic breathing, it is effortless and relaxed. If this is the way you breathe you will likely feel extra tired and sore in your chest.
Which type of breather are you? You can test if you are a diaphragmatic breather or a paradoxical breather by doing a simple little exercise. Start by lying down and resting one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. Breathe in and out gently for a few breaths. Now notice which hand is moving up when you inhale? If it is the hand on your abdomen then you are a ‘belly breather’. The hand on your chest should stay relatively still. If notice the opposite you may want to seek help to retrain your diaphragm.
Another important benefit of belly breathing is that assists in lymphatic drainage. With every descent and ascent of the diaphragm, it compresses and relaxes the lymph vessels and assists the passage of lymph. The diaphragm plays a huge role in our well-being, so it is important we keep it strong and well-used.
To retrain yourself to proper belly breathing try this simple exercise:
- Lie back flat (or sit up perfectly straight) with one hand on your upper chest and the other on your abdomen.
- Breathe out naturally and slowly, remember there is no need to force it.
- Then let your body start to inhale naturally. Don’t try to help things along, let the body do it intuitively by itself.
- At the natural end of the inhalation, breathe out slowly, again don’t force it.
- Repeat the cycle, each time allowing your breathing to become shallower and slower. Eventually you will retrain your muscle memory.
- Keep working at it. Your aim is to get your lower hand to rise first when you breathe in, i.e. diaphragmatic breathing.
I know this seems very simple, but we have to remember that breathing is both a voluntary and Involuntary process. If you find that you don’t have a proper breathing technique you need to consciously change it. Repeat this exercise daily until it is second nature. It may take some time, but it’ll be worth it on many levels.
Be patient with yourself remember that you’re trying to ‘unlearn’ years of poor breathing technique. Over time you’ll begin to feel the benefits through out your whole body. You will be more relaxed and your mood will naturally be improved.
Here is a great little video that will make it very clear:
Mindfulness Exercises: Use Belly Breathing as a Meditation Technique
Through out India Buddha sculptures are depicted as a skinny ascetic Buddha, while in China you have the Buddha depicted with a big belly. I have read somewhere that this was for a definite purpose. In many disciplines of meditation they will tell you to focus on the breath as a way of training your attention and becoming more mindful. Many people may have a hard time noticing their breath as it can be a subtle process.
Another technique is to simply put your attention the rising and falling of the belly, hence all the big belly Buddha statues that served as a friendly reminder. By becoming aware of your belly your indirectly become aware of your breathing process. You may also notice that by just placing your awareness their you will automatically breath in a more deep and natural way.
Use can use this exercise daily as a spring board to a day filled with mindful awareness. An energy that that remains as a silent undercurrent to all your daily activities. Being aware means that you are aware of your own presence, being one with the moment. Less thinking and more feeling. At the end of the day you will see that these moments were the only moments that you where truly alive and content.
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