3 Ways to Improve Your Breathing and Health

It's that time of year when people are beginning to develop winter colds. Others are thinking ahead to preparing their taxes (only 2 months to go in the US). Both colds and psychological stress can cause you to breathe shallowly. Learning to breathe deeply - a skill many people lose over time due to an habituation to stress, not only helps those who are fighting off a cold, but those dealing with chronic conditions (asthma, sinusitis, anxiety) that tend to inhibit the ability to breathe deeply and fully. Improved breathing helps reduce anxiety, promotes oxygenation of the entire body, produces endorphins (the body's natural painkillers), enhances muscle function, helps to lower blood pressure, promotes creativity and mental focus, and increases metabolism.

Ideally here’s what happens when you to take a full, deep breath: the diaphragm comes down and creates a vacuum in the upper chest, the viscera swell out slightly to help this happen, and the rectus abdominis muscle relaxes. If the diaphragm doesn’t descend, you're breathing shallowly. Shallow breathing adversely affects your entire body – the brain, heart, and functioning of your internal organs. It has been linked to increased risk of heart disease as well.

I'm always amazed at how, when I'm stressed or mentally hijacked by a negative thought or scenario, a long, deep breath and relaxing my jaw changes everything. It highlights for me how deeply primal it is to "hunker down" when we allow emotional or mental stress (What if it doesn't work out? What will I do then?) to take over.

Try this for improved breathing

  1. Let your abdominal muscles relax. Lie on your back with your knees up and feet planted. Put your hand on your lower belly and gently inhale. Notice where your breath goes automatically without trying to change anything. Then repeat this several times as you allow the abdominal muscles to relax and soften as you inhale rather than sucking them in. Notice how the belly rises and falls. Allow the back to relax.  Repeat this 8-10 times.
  2. Bring attention to your ribs. The little muscles between them, called the intercostal muscles, act like the fabric in a bellows. If the fabric is tight, the bellows won't expand to suck the air in. The same goes for the ribs. Lie on your side, as in the photo on the right. Put your hand on your ribs and breathe deeply into your ribs 6-8 times. Let them expand like a bellows. Then lie on your back and notice the difference in sensation between both sides of your ribs.
  3. The Flower
  4. Consider your reflexive response to worry and fear. This reflex, called the Red Light Reflex (or Startle Reflex), is involuntary and instantaneous. In the photo on the right, you will see fans cringing in response to the baseball bat that is flying toward them. The Red Light Reflex causes you to tighten the belly, hunch the shoulders and withdraw inward out of real or perceived fear. It can save you from harm (as in the photo), yet, if habituated, it can inhibit breathing, lymphatic flow and drainage, neck pain and result in stooped, collapsed posture.

Over time many people lose the natural function of relaxed breathing. The first place to start on the road to fuller, deeper breathing is by learning to relax the muscles of the center of the body.