Breath and Breathing
Breathing is something we all do without really even thinking about it. It is part of our survival and we really only take notice of it when someone reminds us of our breathing or something is obstructing it– like stress or a health issue.
Focusing on breathing is one of the only ways to connect the mind and body, and is an essential tool for wellness.
Breathing is particularly important for those who suffer from stress, anxiety, high blood pressure or digestive problems. These symptoms are in many ways the result of the body staying in a fight-or-flight state due to an imbalance of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
The nervous system is divided into two, balancing systems. The parasympathetic system is responsible for the day-to-day functions of the body such as breathing, digestion and elimination (both bowel and urinary function). These are things that the body does without any conscious thought. This system also helps to counterbalance the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of the fight-or-flight response. If one were to encounter a bear in the wild, the body would shut down unnecessary things that could affect escape (i.e. urinating or moving the bowels) and stimulate the parts of the body needed to get out of the situation. The body kicks out stress hormones and adrenaline, gearing it up for battle, resulting in an elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
It takes just minutes to focus on breathing techniques. You can do them anytime during the day if you feel stressed or on edge. If you practice these methods routinely, you will notice over time that you’re handling the day better, your blood pressure is lower and overall your body is more in balance.
The inability to manage stress appropriately has caused many to be in constant fight-or-flight mode. Since we don’t encounter bears all that often, our bodies have adapted to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system for less than life-threatening situations such as arguments with a spouse, issues at work, caring for the children or financial concerns. With time, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated so often that it begins to dominate the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in chronic elevated blood pressure and heart rate, bowel problems, nervousness, anxiety and muscle tension.
To help return balance, the parasympathetic system needs to be strengthened. The only way this can be done is through breath. Although breathing will go on whether we do it consciously or not, focusing on some specific techniques can help get our bodies out of fight-or-flight mode. They can be used short-term to help when experiencing a stressful situation, or daily (ideally multiple times a day) to establish a strong mind-body connection and keep the body in balance.
“Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders,” says Andrew Weil, M.D.
“Since breathing is something we can control and regulate, it is a useful tool for achieving a relaxed and clear state of mind. I recommend three breathing exercises to help relax and reduce stress: The Stimulating Breath, The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise (also called the Relaxing Breath), and Breath Counting. Try each and see how they affect your stress and anxiety levels.
Three Beneficial Breathing Exercises
The Stimulating Breath (also called the Bellows Breath)
The Stimulating Breath is adapted from a yogic breathing technique. 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 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 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 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 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 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. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.
If you want to get a feel for this challenging work, try your hand at breath counting, a deceptively simple technique much used in Zen practice.
Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight and head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let the breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Ideally it will be quiet and slow, but depth and rhythm may vary.
To begin the exercise, count “one” to yourself as you exhale.
The next time you exhale, count “two,” and so on up to “five.”
Then begin a new cycle, counting “one” on the next exhalation.
Never count higher than “five,” and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself up to “eight,” “12,” even “19.”
Try to do 10 minutes of this form of meditation.
A 20% reduction in oxygen blood levels may be caused by the aging process and normal breathing habits. Poor breathing robs energy and negatively affects mental alertness. Unless breathing is exercised, aging affects the respiratory system as follows:
Stiffness: The rib cage and surrounding muscles get stiff causing inhalation to become more difficult. Less elasticity and weak muscles leave stale air in the tissues of the lungs and prevents fresh oxygen from reaching the blood stream.
Rapid, Shallow Breathing: This type of breathing, often caused by poor posture and weak or stiff muscles, leads to poor oxygen supply, respiratory disease, sluggishness, or heart disease.
BELLY BREATH EXERCISES
The following exercises are simple ways to deepen breathing and to cleanse the lungs. These exercises will also increase energy and decrease tension.
Lie flat on your back to get a proper sense of deep breathing. (Have some small pillows available to reduce strain by tucking them under the neck and knees. The natural course of breathing in that position will create a slight rise in the stomach upon inhaling and a slight fall upon exhaling.)
Place your hands palm down on your stomach at the base of the rib cage. (The lungs go that far down. What fills them deeper is the pushing down of the diaphragm. The diaphragm creates a suction which draws air into the lungs. The air is then expelled when the diaphragm pushes up. In this process, the life-giving oxygen fills the lungs and gets into the blood stream for distribution to the cells. Carbon dioxide is expelled from the blood into the about-to-be exhaled breath, thus cleansing the body and blood of waste products.) Lay the palms of your hands on your stomach just below the rib cage, middle fingers barely touching each other, and take a slow deep breath. (As the diaphragm pushes down, the stomach will slightly expand causing the fingertips to separate somewhat.)
This movement indicates full use of the lungs, resulting in a truly deep breath rather than the “puffed chest” breath experienced by many as the greatest lung capacity. Chest breathing fills the middle and upper parts of the lungs. Belly breathing is the most efficient method. Infants and small children use only this method until the chest matures. The yoga breath or roll breathing combines belly and chest breathing.
FOR BEST RESULTS, PRACTICE THIS EXERCISE FOR 5 MINUTES.
COMPLETE BREATH EXERCISES
- Sit up straight. Exhale.
- Inhale and, at the same time, relax the belly muscles. Feel as though the belly is filling with air.
- After filling the belly, keep inhaling. Fill up the middle of your chest. Feel your chest and rib cage expand.
- Hold the breath in for a moment, and then begin to exhale as slowly as possible.
- As the air is slowly let out, relax your chest and rib cage. Begin to pull your belly in to force out the remaining breath.
- Close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing.
- Relax your face and mind.
- Let everything go.
- Practice about 5 minutes.
HUMMING BREATH EXERCISES
Follow the instructions for inhaling the COMPLETE BREATH (Steps 1-3 above). Now, as you begin to slowly exhale, make a HUM sound. Keep making that humming sound as long as possible. Pull your stomach muscles in, squeezing out a few more seconds of humming. Then relax. Practice for 2 to 3 minutes.
CHINESE BREATH EXERCISES
A very fine, short (though not shallow) breath exercise comes from the Chinese Tai Chi Chuan. Three short inhales are done through the nose without exhaling. On the first inhale, the arms are lifted from the sides straight out in front at shoulder height. On the second, the arms are opened out straight to the sides while still at shoulder height. And on the third, the arms are lifted straight over the head. Then, on the exhale through the mouth, the arms are moved in an arc back down to the sides. Usually, ten or twelve breaths are sufficient and will not cause light headedness. If light headedness should occur, simply stop the exercise. This exercise also has the effect of really opening up people physically. In subtle ways, this exercise uses the body in leading the mind and spirit to greater openness with each other and the environment.
CAUTION !! Especially for older people: Never do panting or shallow breathing except while seated. Hyperventilation may occur. As long as one is seated, hyperventilation will not be a problem because, even if a brief blackout should occur, the body’s automatic breathing apparatus will immediately take over.
Breathing as a bridge
It is thought by many cultures that the process of breathing is the essence of being. A rhythmic process of expansion and contraction, breathing is one example of the consistent polarity we see in nature such as night and day, wake and sleep, seasonal growth and decay and ultimately life and death. In yoga, the breath is known as prana or a universal energy that can be used to find a balance between the body-mind, the conscious-unconscious, and the sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous system. Unlike other bodily functions, the breath is easily used to communicate between these systems, which give us an excellent tool to help facilitate positive change. It is the only bodily function that we do both voluntarily and involuntarily. We can consciously use breathing to influence the involuntary (sympathetic nervous system) that regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, digestion and many other bodily functions. Pranayama is a yoga practice that literally means the control of life or energy. It uses breathing techniques to change subtle energies within the body for health and well being. Breathing exercises can act as a bridge into those functions of the body of which we generally do not have conscious control.
An example of how life affects physiology
During times of emotional stress our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and it brings about a number of physical responses. Our heart rate rises, we perspire, our muscles tense and our breathing become rapid and shallow. If this process happens over a long period of time, the sympatric nervous system becomes over stimulated leading to an imbalance that can affect our physical health resulting in inflammation, high blood pressure and muscle pain to name a few. Consciously slowing our heart rate, decreasing perspiration and relaxing muscles are more difficult than simply slowing and deepening breathing. The breath can be used to directly influence these stressful changes causing a direct stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in relaxation and a reversal of the changes seen with the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. We can see how our bodies know to do this naturally when we take a deep breath or sigh when a stress is relieved.
The breathing process can be trained
Breathing can be trained for both positive and negative influences on health. Chronic stress can lead to a restriction of the connective and muscular tissue in the chest resulting in a decreased range of motion of the chest wall. Due to rapid more shallow breathing, the chest does not expand as much as it would with slower deeper breaths and much of the air exchange occurs at the top of the lung tissue towards the head. This results in “chest” breathing. You can see if you are a chest breather by placing your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. As you breathe, see which hand raises more. If your right hand raises more, you are a chest breather. If your left hand raises more, you are an abdomen breather.
Chest breathing is inefficient because the greatest amount of blood flow occurs in the lower lobes of the lungs, areas that have limited air expansion in chest breathers. Rapid, shallow, chest breathing results in less oxygen transfer to the blood and subsequent poor delivery of nutrients to the tissues. The good news is that similar to learning to play an instrument or riding a bike, you can train the body to improve its breathing technique. With regular practice you will breathe from the abdomen most of the time, even while asleep.
Note: Using and learning proper breathing techniques is one of the most beneficial things that can be done for both short and long term physical and emotional health.
The benefits of abdominal breathing
Abdominal breathing is also known as diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a large muscle located between the chest and the abdomen. When it contracts it is forced downward causing the abdomen to expand. This causes a negative pressure within the chest forcing air into the lungs. The negative pressure also pulls blood into the chest improving the venous return to the heart. This leads to improved stamina in both disease and athletic activity. Like blood, the flow of lymph, which is rich in immune cells, is also improved. By expanding the lung’s air pockets and improving the flow of blood and lymph, abdominal breathing also helps prevent infection of the lung and other tissues. But most of all it is an excellent tool to stimulate the relaxation response that results in less tension and an overall sense of well being.
Abdominal Breathing Technique
Breathing exercises such as this one should be done twice a day or whenever you find your mind dwelling on upsetting thoughts or when you are experiencing pain.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the one on the chest. This insures that the diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of the lungs.
After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow deep breath in through your nose imagining that you are sucking in all the air in the room and hold it for a count of 7 (or as long as you are able, not exceeding 7)
Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from the lungs. It is important to remember that we deepen respirations not by inhaling more air but through completely exhaling it.
Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breaths and try to breathe at a rate of one breath every 10 seconds (or 6 breaths per minute). At this rate our heart rate variability increases which has a positive effect on cardiac health.
Once you feel comfortable with the above technique, you may want to incorporate words that can enhance the exercise. Examples would be to say to yourself the word, relaxation (with inhalation) and stress or anger (with exhalation). The idea being to bring in the feeling/emotion you want with inhalation and release those you don’t want with exhalation.
In general, exhalation should be twice as long as inhalation. The use of the hands on the chest and abdomen are only needed to help you train your breathing. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to breathe into the abdomen, they are no longer needed.
Abdominal breathing is just one of many breathing exercises. But it is the most important one to learn before exploring other techniques. The more it is practiced, the more natural it will become improving the body’s internal rhythm.
Using breathing exercises to increase energy
If practiced over time, the abdominal breathing exercise can result in improved energy throughout the day, but sometimes we are in need of a quick “pick-up.” The Bellows breathing exercise (also called, the stimulating breath) can be used during times of fatigue that may result from driving over distances or when you need to be revitalized at work. It should not be used in place of abdominal breathing but in addition as a tool to increase energy when needed. This breathing exercise is opposite that of abdominal breathing. Short, fast rhythmic breaths are used to increase energy, which are similar to the “chest” breathing we do when under stress. The bellows breath recreates the adrenal stimulation that occurs with stress and results in the release of energizing chemicals such as epinephrine. Like most bodily functions this serves an active purpose, but overuse results in adverse effects as discussed above.
The Bellows Breathing Technique (The Stimulating Breath)
This yogic technique can be used to help stimulate energy when needed. It is a good thing to use before reaching for a cup of coffee.
Sit in a comfortable up-right position with your spine straight.
With your mouth gently closed breathe in and out of your nose as fast as possible. To give an idea of how this is done, think of someone using a bicycle pump (a bellows) to quickly pump up a tire. The upstroke is inspiration and the down stroke is exhalation and both are equal in length.
The rate of breathing is rapid with as many as 2-3 cycles of inspiration/expiration per second.
While doing the exercise, you should feel effort at the base of the neck, chest and abdomen. The muscles in these areas will increase in strength the more this technique is practiced. This is truly an exercise.
Do this for no longer than 15 seconds when first starting. With practice, slowly increase the length of the exercise by 5 seconds each time. Do it as long as you are comfortably able, not exceeding one full minute.
There is a risk for hyperventilation that can result in loss of consciousness if this exercise is done too much in the beginning. For this reason, it should be practiced in a safe place such as a bed or chair.
This exercise can be used each morning upon awakening or when needed for an energy boost.
If you have COPD, you need to get the most out of each breath. The breathing techniques on this page will help you do that.
To learn more about breathing techniques, you can join a pulmonary rehabilitation program. Pulmonary rehabilitation programs are specially designed for people with COPD. They teach breathing and exercise techniques, and they’re a fun way to stay in shape. Learn more about pulmonary rehabilitation.
What to do if you’re short of breath
Being short of breath can feel scary. It helps if you know what to do.
Stop and rest in a comfortable position
Lower your head and shoulders
Breathe in through your nose, and blow out through your mouth
Breathe in and blow out as fast as is necessary
Begin to blow out more slowly and for a longer time. Don’t force it. Use pursed lip breathing if you find it helpful
Slow your breathing down
Begin breathing through your nose
Begin doing diaphragmatic breathing
Stay in this position for 5 minutes longer
Comfortable positions if you’re short of breath
- Sitting: Sit with your back against the back of the chair. Your head and shoulders should be rolled forward and relaxed downwards. Rest your hands and forearms on your thighs, palms turned upwards. Do not lean on your hands. Your feet should be on the floor, knees rolled slightly outwards. Follow the steps above until you’re breathing is normal.
- Sitting: Lean back into the chair in a slouched position, your head rolled forward, shoulders relaxed downward. Rest your hands gently on your stomach. Keep your feet on floor, knees rolled outward. Follow the steps above (“What to do if you’re short of breath”) until your breathing is normal.
- Sitting: Place a pillow on a table and sit down, arms folded and resting on the pillow. Keep your feet on the floor or a stool, and rest your head on your arms. Follow the steps above (“What to do if you’re short of breath”) until you’re breathing is normal.
This position may also be used standing, arms resting on kitchen counter or back of chair, not leaning, knees bent slightly, and one foot in front of the other.
- Standing: Lean with your back to the wall, a pole, etc. Place your feet slightly apart and at a comfortable distance from the wall, head and shoulders relaxed. Follow the steps above (“What to do if you’re short of breath”) until you’re breathing is normal.
How to control your breathing
If you know how to control your breathing, you can stay calm when you’re short of breath. Pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing will both help. These breathing methods prevent or reduce the trapped air in your lungs, and allow you to breathe in more fresh air.
Pursed lip breathing
Breathe in slowly through your nose for 1 count
Purse your lips as if you were going to whistle
Breathe out gently through pursed lips for 2 slow counts (breathe out twice as slowly as you breathed in). Let the air escape naturally- don’t force the air out of your lungs
Keep doing pursed lip breathing until you’re no longer short of breath
Lie on your back with knees bent. You can put a pillow under your knees for support.
Place one hand on your belly below your rib cage. Place the other hand on your chest.
Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of three. Your belly and lower ribs should rise, but your chest should remain still.
Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale for a count of six through slightly puckered lips.
How to cough up phlegm: controlled coughing
People with COPD usually have extra phlegm (mucus) in their lungs. If you have phlegm, cough it up. If the phlegm stays in your lungs, it can clog your smaller airways, making it hard to breathe. The phlegm could also become infected. It’s important to get the phlegm out.
Controlled coughing helps you clear the phlegm from your lungs. Here’s how to do it:
Sit down and make yourself comfortable.
Lean your head forward slightly.
Place both feet firmly on the ground.
Breathe in deeply using diaphragmatic breathing (push your belly out while you breathe in).
Try to hold your breath for three seconds.
While keeping your mouth slightly open, cough out twice. You should feel your diaphragm pushed upward while you do this. The first cough should bring up the phlegm, and the second cough should move it towards the throat.
Spit the phlegm out into a tissue. Remember to check the colour; if the phlegm is yellow, green or brown, or has blood in it, call your doctor. Throw out the tissue right away.
Take a break and repeat these steps once or twice if necessary.
Summary: Dr. Gladd’s Breathing Technique:
Find a quiet and comfortable place. Make sure the room is not too bright. If you choose to play music, be certain it’s relaxing and set to a reasonable volume.
Wear comfortable clothing that is not too tight.
Stand, sit or lie in a position that keeps the back straight.
Start by clearing your mind of all thoughts and focusing only on your breathing. Feel the air come into your lungs and go out of your lungs. Do this for several minutes, getting into a relaxed state.
Try for several breaths to make your breathing as slow, deep, quiet and regular as possible.
As you continue to focus on your breathing, try to exhale completely, pushing all of the air out of your lungs. You will need to use the muscles between the ribs to do this. Inhale very slowly and fill your lungs back up with fresh air.
The next exercise is the most relaxing technique:
The tip of your tongue should be against the roof of your mouth, right behind your teeth, during this entire exercise.
Close your lips and breathe in for 4 seconds.
Hold that breath for 7 seconds.
Open your mouth and push your lips out, exhaling that breath for 8 seconds.
Repeat steps a-d for a series of 4 breaths.
Finish by breathing regularly, continuing to focus on your breathing.
You should notice an immediate feeling of peace after completing this exercise.
For more detailed instruction and other breathing techniques, listen to the audio CD by Dr. Andrew Weil, Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing.
Change Your Breathing, Change Your Life by J.P. Blackard
Three Breathing Exercises Andrew Weil, M.D.
University of Missouri
Health Hint: Breathing Exercises – Integrative Medicine, D. Rakel, WB. Saunders,
COPD and Exercise: Breathing and Exercise Programs for COPD – Web M.D.