The Practice of Mindful Breathing

Practice of Mindful Breathing

Did you know that our breathe is connected to nearly every emotion?  Think about it, whether we are sad, happy, fearful, surprised, disappointed or laughing, the breath is connected to each one of these emotions.  So, the thought is that if we can learn to control our breath, perhaps we can control how we react.

The actual word breath, means life.  Without breath, there would be no life. Often, we take for granted this essential gift of breath and carry on throughout our entire day without taking a moment to think about breathing.  It is pretty amazing that the inhalation of oxygen transforms nutrients into fuel while exhalation of carbon dioxide, excretes toxic waste.  Every day, we take thousands of breaths without even thinking about it. Imagine that if we just took a few moments each day to think about our breath and practice intentional deep breathing, how much more we could optimize the ability of our lungs to allow your body to fully exchange incoming oxygen with outgoing carbon dioxide.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing offers many benefits from stress reduction to boosting immunity to even improving gut health.  Your gut and brain are very much connected and therefore a healthy gut equals a healthy brain and vice versa.  When we practice deep breathing, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response) to counter the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) to create a systemic sense of calmness throughout our entire body.  To understand more about the stress response, please visit our previous post titled “Let’s Talk about Stress!”

Benefits of Deep Breathing include:

 

  1. Reduce Stress:  When we engage the parasympathetic nervous system through deep breathing, it shuts of the stress response and therefore lowers our cortisol levels (stress hormones).  We are constantly in a state of high alert due to lifestyle, diet, work and family stressors.  Engaging in deep breathing daily can train the body to approach stress differently and therefore help to prevent damage to our bodies that may occur secondary to chronic stress.
  2. Manage Blood Pressure and Reduce Heart Rate: With the stress response consistently activated, it puts us at risk for high blood pressure and increased heart rate as chronic stress prepares the body for fight or flight and a side effect is increased blood pressure and heart rate.  Deep breathing can help calm the nervous system, once again leading to lower blood pressure and lower heart rate.
  3. Immune Health: When we are in a chronic state of stress, we are more at risk for inflammation.  Although like acute stress, our bodies are well equipped for acute inflammation, it is when the chronic stress response is consistently triggered that is what may lead to chronic inflammation in the body.  Chronic stress adversely affects the mucosal immune system by way of its negative influence on cortisol levels and antibody production.  When we practice deep breathing or other stress-reducing activities, it allows our bodies to enter into a state of relaxation and reduce the chronic inflammatory response that could lead to further damage of our immune system.
  4. Improve Sleep: Deep breathing is beneficial in calming the mind and body to reduce cortisol levels and stimulate melatonin to help aid with sleep.  Millions struggle with poor sleep.  Practicing deep breathing before bed may help support sleep.
  5. Support a healthy gut:  The sympathetic (involuntary stress response) nervous system which initiates the shallow breath also regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, and digestion (your gut). When we are stressed and give our body less oxygen to work with all these systems are affected including your gut and digestion.

Although breathing practices are common in yoga, meditation and other forms of stress management techniques, it can be incorporated easily, anywhere and very importantly it is FREE!  You can literally practice deep breathing all on your own!  I personally love the practice of yoga and do combine a yoga practice often with breathing.  There are all kinds of styles but the breathe work is truly the focal point of yoga.  Yoga has two parts:  Asana (poses) and pranayama (breathing).  In traditional yoga, the asana component was always done before the pranayama to help create space within the lungs to improve the breathwork which might have been practiced after the physical yoga practice.  Whether you choose to practice yoga or want to just practice deep breathing, start by coming to a comfortable seat with both feet on the ground or lay down on the ground.  Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.  And then begin.

Belly Breath

Belly Breath, also called diaphragmatic breath, is a deep breathing technique that engages your diaphragm.  Many people may get into the habit of breathing from their chest, which can induce shallow breathing.  Belly Breath allows the belly to expand or rise on the inhalation and return to normal or fall toward the spine with the exhalation.

Place one hand on your chest and one hand below your ribcage in the epigastric area, which is right above the navel. Having a hand here will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe. Breathe in slowly through your nose. And Exhale through the mouth.   Your belly should rise on the inhale and lower on the exhale.  Repeat

3-part Breath

This Breath technique is incredibly calming and grounding.  It really works to help focus your attention on the present moment and get in tune with the sensations of your physical body. It combines the belly, ribcage and upper chest to create this 3-part breath technique.  One hand may be placed on your belly and the other on your chest.

At the onset of the inhale:

  1. The belly rises/expands
  2. Then the ribcage expands laterally
  3. And finally, the upper chest/collarbones lift

As you exhale, the wave of breath reverses beginning with the upper chest, ribcage and then the belly.  Repeat.

Ujjayi (oceanic breath)

Perhaps one of my favorite breathing practices.  Like the Belly breath, Ujjayi first fills the lower belly, rises to the lower rib cage, and finally moves into the upper chest and throat. This practice is done using your nose to breathe in and exhalation is also done through the nose.  Imagine you are trying to fog up a mirror with the back of your throat.  This is the Ujjayi technique.  Often used in yoga classes, but can be practiced on its own.

4:8 breath

Another easy breathing technique that can engage the parasympathetic nervous system You can simply breath in for 4 counts and breathe out for 8.  Other variations may include a breath hold at the top or if 4:8 is challenging, try 3:6.  Work your way up to inhaling for 10 and exhaling for 20!

** However, if you have any of the following conditions: pregnancy, uncontrolled high blood pressure, COPD, heart disease, glaucoma, refrain from holding your breath for long periods.  Perhaps just s quick pause at the top.

Final Thoughts:

As you can see there are many benefits to practicing deep breathing.  I encourage you to find time each day to find your breath, intentionally direct your awareness towards it and…just breathe.

 

Sources:

Williams, T. The Chronic Stress Crisis.  2011

http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2013/05/14/breathing-and-your-brain-five-reasons-to-grab-the-controls/

 

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