Are You Barely Breathing?
By Heidi Baldwin, MS Holistic Health Coach
How often are you sitting at your desk working, or maybe even driving down the road, and you take a really deep breath… and then ask yourself if you were even breathing at all? Most of us realistically are breathing just enough to get by, but not truly taking in enough oxygen to help our bodies thrive. Let’s talk about breathing and why it’s the most important thing you do each day, and how to really make the most of each breath you take.
Breathing is the only body function we do either consciously or unconsciously. Two completely different systems control our breathing – the voluntary nervous system and the involuntary (or autonomic) nervous system. Most of us rely on the involuntary nervous system to keep us going, and this is the state we are in when we are “barely breathing.” We need to become more conscientious and tap into the voluntary nervous system in order to control our breath to get the most out of our breath work.
There are many benefits of deep breathing:
· Improves blood quality & removes toxins from the blood
· Calms the mind and the nervous system, which triggers deep relaxation
· Alleviates headaches, calms anxiety and tension
· Improves posture
· Supplies oxygen to the cells to metabolize nutrients & vitamins
· Improves cellular regeneration
· Provides pain relief
· Helps balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain
· Helps regulate the heating and cooling systems of the body
· Protects the lungs from respiratory problems
· Improves digestion
· Burns excess fat, and feeds starving tissues and glands
· Boosts energy levels and improves stamina
· Elevates mood, alters consciousness
· Improves lungs, heart, and circulatory system
· Nourishes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves, improving the overall health of the whole body
· Can accelerate healing
The good news is that breath work is completely free! It just takes a few moments of your attention and some consistent practice. When you are practicing your breath work, keep in mind that the muscles that control exhalation are much stronger than those that control inhalation. You want to exhale longer than you inhale, which exercises the intercostal muscles and releases more toxins from the body. Any time you’re upset or off balance, be conscientious of making your breathing deeper, slower, quieter, and more regular for as many breaths as possible. Don’t forget the importance of the exhale. Many of us do not exhale for nearly long enough, and we are not eliminating as many toxins as we should be with our breath.
Some wise advice you may have heard before is to breathe with your nose, and eat with your mouth…
Breathing through your nose will:
· Filter the air
· Warm the air
· Provide moisture (water vapor/humidity) to the air you’re inhaling
Here is a fun fact: Animals that take the fewest breaths per minute live the longest!
· Rabbits breathing - 150-160 breaths per minute, average lifespan 5 – 6 years
· Dogs – 80-120 breaths per minute, lifespan 10 – 15 years
· Elephants – 8–12 breaths per minute, lifespan 100 years
· Tortoise – 1-2 breaths per minute, lifespan 200-300 years
* Slow down your breathing rate! Focus on slow, deep, rhythmic, continuous breathing
I used to offer workshops on breath work, and I would like to share some practical information with you from those materials that you can put into practice TODAY! Some Types of Breath Work to consider:
· Abdominal Breathing
· 3 Part Breath
· Alternate Nostril Breathing/Nadi Shodhana Breathing
o Harmonizes the 2 hemispheres of the brain
o Activates parasympathetic nervous system, reduces blood pressure
enhances respiratory function
o Improves attention and fine-motor coordination/function
o Removes toxins, settles stress
· Stimulating Breath/Bellows Breath
o Raises the energy of the nervous system
o Increases alertness
o Creates warmth
o Good to use to wake up in the morning, or when feeling drowsy during day
o Sit quietly afterward in a peaceful, meditative state
· Relaxing Breath/4-7-8 Breath
o Helps relieve anxiety
o Reduces cravings
o Gains power with repetition
o Combine with Stimulating Breath for increased benefits
Here are the instructions for various types of breathwork for you to practice:
Nadi Shodhana Practice (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Sit in any comfortable seated position. Relax the body and breathe naturally for a few moments, allowing your mind and body to settle.
Rest your left hand on your lap or knee.
Make a "peace sign" with your right hand. Fold the two extended fingers toward the palm or rest them lightly on the bridge of your nose. Place your thumb gently onto your right nostril. Place your ring and little fingers gently onto your left nostril.
Close your eyes and begin by softly closing your right nostril (using your right thumb) and inhale slowly, deeply, smoothly, gently, and without strain through your left nostril.
Close your left nostril (using your ring and little fingers) and release the closure of your right. Exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril.
Close your right nostril and release the closure of your left. Exhale through your left nostril.
This completes one round. Continue the pattern from steps 4-7 for as long as you wish. When you’re finished: relax both arms, sit and breathe naturally for a few moments before opening your eyes.
The Stimulating Breath (also called the Bellows Breath)
The Stimulating Breath is adapted from yogic breathing techniques. Its aim is to raise vital energy and increase alertness.
Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise.
Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellows. Breathe normally after each cycle.
Do not do it for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute.
If done properly, you may feel invigorated, comparable to the heightened awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest, and the abdomen. Try this diaphragmatic breathing exercise the next time you need an energy boost and feel yourself reaching for a cup of coffee.
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
This breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice, you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension or stress. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.
Breathwork is very beneficial for your health and well-being, and I cannot recommend enough the importance of building this into your daily schedule. It is a powerful combination to use the stimulating breath for 1 minute and immediately go into the relaxing breath, then go into sitting meditation. If you don’t meditate, at least start with the breath work. Over time you will notice you are naturally breathing deeper and more slowly. Be mindful, and make each breath give you more vibrant health.
Resources: Dr. Andrew Weil, Depak Chopra Center, Dr. Shamanthakamani Narendran, and Mind Body Green