By Michelle Owens
“Breathing may be considered the most important of all the functions of the body, for indeed all the other functions depend upon it. Man may exist some time without eating, a shorter time without drinking; but without breathing, his existence may be measured by a few minutes.” –Yogi Ramacharaka
How many times today did you pay attention to your breathing? If you’re like most adults, you barely noticed those 20,000 life-sustaining breaths that cycle through the human body everyday.
In fact, the only time many of us tune into our breath is when we we’re running short of it. This lack of attention leads to poor breathing techniques that rob the body of crucial oxygen and lead to decreased vitality. If you learn the proper way to breathe, you’ll enjoy an abundance of physical energy, mental clarity and peace of mind.
Consider this. We spend hours each day sitting hunched over computers, steering wheels, schoolbooks or other sedentary chores that make up our modern lifestyles. Our shoulders are rounded forward, the chest is collapsed and the lungs are crowded into this tight space. Over time, the shoulders, back and intercostal muscles of the ribcage become weak or inflexible, preventing the ribcage, and thus the lungs, from fully expanding upon inhalation.
Furthermore, we tend to tighten or suck in the abdomen while sitting, encountering stressful situations, or trying to hide that beer belly. This tightening inhibits movement of the diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities, and aids in healthy inhalations and exhalations.
With so much compression and restriction in the upper body, we adopt shallow, or clavicular, breathing techniques, taking in only a small percentage of the body’s required oxygen into the smaller, top part of the lungs. Such chronic oxygen deprivation negatively impacts the body’s brain function, energy production and detoxification.
When breathing properly, you want to take a “complete breath” that engages the diaphragm and fills the lower, middle and upper lungs. If you’ve been taking tiny sips of air at the top of the lungs for as long as you can remember, you’ll need to work you way up to a complete breath. Start with these simple breathing exercises recommended by the Sivananda Yoga Vendanta Centre.
Deep Belly Breathing (aka Diaphramatic Breathing)
To get the feel of proper diaphragmatic breathing, wear loose clothing and lie on your back. Place one hand on the upper abdomen, where the diaphragm is located. Breathe in and out slowly. The abdomen should expand outward and the diaphragm should move downward, as you inhale. As you exhale, the abdomen should contract, the navel should draw in toward the spine and the diaphragm should lift up to fully expel the breath. Try to get the feeling of this motion. It’s common to feel slightly dizzy if your body is unaccustomed to proper breathing. Stop when you feel dizzy and practice again later. Breathing habits don’t change overnight, so keep practicing this exercise for several days or several weeks until you feel comfortable with the process.
Once you feel proficient in the practice of the deep belly breathing you will be ready to learn the complete breath. Place both hands on your belly. Breathe in slowly, feel the hands moving out as you expand your abdomen. When the lower lungs are full, slide the hands up to the ribcage and continue breathing into the ribcage, filling the middle lungs; and finally bring the hands to the clavicle, lift the shoulders slightly and continue inhaling into the upper portion of the lungs. Then, breathe out in the same manner, letting the abdomen cave in as you exhale. This is the Yogic complete breath.
To learn more about proper breathing, check out these resources
“The Science of Breath”, by Yogi Ramacharaka
“The Breathing Box: 4 Weeks to Healthy Breathing,” by Gay Hendricks
About the author: Michelle Owens is a Yoga Alliance-registered yoga teacher and owner of Yoga East studio (www.yogaeastorlando.com) in downtown Avalon Park. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.