Are you breathing the right way?

Good breathing is a major component of good health, yet many of us spend our lives taking too-shallow breaths that can increase our stress levels. Find out how to breathe the right way and get some breathing techniques to try

Are you breathing the right way?

Source: Web exclusive: May 2009

For most of us, breathing is nothing more than an automatic function that keeps us alive, a steady flow that brings in vital oxygen and expels carbon dioxide. But unlike heartbeat or digestion, breath is a bodily function we can consciously control. If you’ve ever taken a deep breath to keep a panic attack at bay, then you already know the wonders breathing can have on your well-being. Not only will paying regular attention to your breath give you a good reading on your mental and emotional state, you’ll also tap into an easy and effective way to manage stress and anxiety.

Though we usually take it for granted, we use the breath in lots of different ways every day: gasping when we cry, hyperventilating when we’re panicked and breathing deeply when we laugh. But most of us still live day-to-day taking shallow, unconscious breaths’and that’s not good for us. ‘A lot of people don’t realize they aren’t breathing properly,’ says Adam Prinsen, a naturopathic doctor based in Peterborough, Ont. ‘They are breathing in a way that reflects stress’and by breathing that way, they’re actually sending a message to their nervous system that they are stressed. It’s a vicious circle.’

How to breathe properly

For an example of proper breathing, Prinsen suggests watching an animal or newborn baby while they’re sleeping’they breathe steadily and effortlessly from their bellies. But by the time we’re four or five years old, we’ve already learned improper breathing habits, and they soon become ingrained. ‘Eventually you’re 40 and you’ve been breathing in an unhealthy way for years,’ says Prinsen. ‘If you want to change your breathing, you have to put effort into changing your habits.’

The first step toward using your breath more effectively is to pay attention to it. ‘Notice what your breath is doing when you’re stressed, when you’re happy, during sex, and while doing exercise,’ says Seth Daley, a Halifax-based yoga teacher, explaining that once you understand the way you breathe, you can start to modify it. Daley says breathing is integral to most forms of yoga’and is ultimately a more important part of the practice than the physical postures. As he explains, the Sanskrit word for breath, prana, also means energy, and it’s a vital indicator of our overall well-being. That’s why practices that incorporate the breath’like yoga, tai chi and Pilates’are good places to start in learning how to use yours more effectively.

Learning good breathing techniques

The key to good technique is learning how to breathe with your diaphragm. That’s the muscle beneath your rib cage, the same one you use for singing or laughing. ‘If you’re breathing properly, you can feel your diaphragm pushing down into your belly,’ says Prinsen, who points out that through it isn’t crucial for the abdomen to go in and out while you’re breathing, it can be a good technique. If you’re guilty of holding in your stomach so that it looks flatter’and many women are’then you definitely aren’t using your diaphragm properly. And utilizing the diaphragm is the key to letting go of stress. ‘It sends a message to the nervous system that you’re relaxed,’ says Prinsen.

Daley says learning to control the breath is as simple as taking long, deliberate inhales at designated times throughout the day. He recommends counting to three as you breathe in, and then again as you exhale, making each inhale and exhale the same length, without pausing. ‘Not only does it make you aware of your breathing patterns, but it forces you to calm down and it draws your focus inward, like meditation does,’ says Daley. He also suggests lying down with a pillow under your upper back as an even easier method to practise calm breathing. Once you get good at it, you can practice calm breathing while you’re walking, doing dishes or sitting in your car at a stoplight.

Finding a daily breathing routine

Though Prinsen recommends deep breathing for 10 to 20 minutes a day, he says even practising for a minute every hour will have noticeable benefits. ‘It will completely change your mental and emotional state,’ he says. As an added bonus, he adds that good breathing has physical benefits for the whole body, as it helps reduce acidity and makes the body more alkaline. ‘If you have chronic acidity in your body tissue,’ he explains, ‘you’ll have a greater tendency to develop chronic disease.’ Isn’t that worth taking a deep breath for?

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