Most of us believe we breathe well enough. After all, nature’s powerful reflexes guarantee we get enough air to live. But there’s more to life than just surviving. Our quality of life is often diminished by habitually tense, shallow breathing and could be significantly improved by learning how to breathe better. Deep relaxed natural breathing can ease anxiety and increase energy.
Why in the world would we breathe less air than we need? The problem is that our minds have conscious and unconscious control over our body muscles, and we exercise this control to interfere with free and open breathing far more often than we realize.
Sadly, these almost universal habits started out in childhood, and continue throughout life. As tiny children, we learned to stop crying by suppressing our breathing. As older children, we learned that acting out got us in trouble, so we reduced our breathing to damp down our feelings and get by. When we were hurt, or threatened, we already knew how to stop our crying, and were well on our way to forming habits of shallow breathing. Because the adults around us have not spent time learning how to breathe better, we coast along on old, bad breathing habits and suffer the consequences of lower energy and heightened anxiety.
Shallow breathing creates the worst problems just when we need air the most. In states of anxiety, caused by real or imagined fears, with our heart pounding, entering the fight-or-flight response, we need more air. But our tense habits stifle breathing, making ourselves feel even worse. When we live in habitual worry and fear we prolong this state of arousal, creating a variety of affects on the body, such as muscle tension and elevated blood pressure. By suppressing our breathing and feeling stuck in the bodily sensations of arousal we weave a terrible web of chronic anxiety or depression.
By increasing the oxygen flow to our bodies, and by relieving the nervous tension stored in our breathing muscles, we can discover a sense of well being and relaxation. Whether we’re suffering from anxiety, depression or anger, breathing can be an important tool to reset our selves to a more relaxed state.
Before we can learn how to breathe naturally we need to become aware of the machinery of natural breathing. Our lungs sit on top of the large diaphragm muscle that pumps air in and out like a powerful bellows. When we breathe in, the diaphragm drops down to pull air into the lungs. To allow more room for incoming air, the abdominal muscles need to relax and open out. Because of our bad habits, contributed to by our obsession with belly size, most of us tend to hold our abdominal muscles in, restricting the movement of the diaphragm and stifling our breathing. To breathe naturally, the abdominal muscles must relax outward as we breathe in and pull in slightly as we breathe out. This natural rhythmic movement has the additional benefit of gently massaging our organs with every breath, increasing our sense of wellbeing and life energy.
Here is a simple exercise to introduce natural breathing. Standing or sitting comfortably with our spine erect, we relax the muscles in our chest, neck and head. As we breathe in, we relax and imagine the air dropping all the way to the bottom of our lungs. As we breathe out, we feel the air coming up from our toes, up in a straight line, up through our belly and out our mouth. As we breathe in, we relax our belly muscles and let our diaphragm drop down. With our fingers on our abdomen we feel the air expanding downward and outward. We breathe out letting the air come up from our stomach. Pushing our fingers gently against our abdomen we feel the breath being expelled as our diaphragm lifts up.
Books such as The Tao of Natural Breathing by Dennis Lewis provide in-depth understanding of the details of breathing. Based on ancient Taoist principles, this book teaches a gentle, wise approach. Yoga is another ancient exercise discipline that teaches deep, relaxed breathing, as well as the overall philosophy of mind and body. While yoga has helped many people, some yoga exercises force breathing and can disturb the nervous system. With names like “breath of fire” these exercises were originally intended for the most advanced expert practitioners. Beginners should avoid any breathing exercise that creates stress or disharmony.
When we are tense, anxious, stressed, angry, exhausted or in any state that causes discomfort, we can benefit by taking a few moments to breathe. Clearing troubling thoughts out of our mind, we relax our muscles, especially those around neck, shoulders, chest and stomach, and take a few long, slow deep breaths. Tension rolls off in waves, and we find ourselves ready to carry on with increased poise and peace.
See also: Anger, Body/Mind, Fight or flight, Soothing
“Wherever you go, there you are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
he Tao of Natural Breathing : For Health, Well-Being and Inner Growth by Dennis Lewis