Breathe In, Breathe Out: Three Exercises For Better Health
Nov 01, 2009 12:00AM
By Amber Lanier Nagle
Most of us are oblivious to our breathing habits. It’s simply something that we do thousands of times every day without thinking about it, breathing in life-giving oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, most of us do not breathe correctly. We tend to take 10 to 12 shallow, staccato breaths per minute, instead of the slower, deeper, oxygen-rich breaths that our bodies crave.
For centuries, specific breathing techniques have played an integral, healthful role in Eastern mind-body practices, including many forms of yoga and martial arts. Today, the element of disciplined breathing associated with those arts are drawing the attention of Western medical research. Studies are showing that while poor breathing has a negative effect on an individual’s health, deep, optimal breathing can measurably improve body functions.
Dr. David Anderson, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, says that slower, deeper breathing may even help some people with hypertension lower their blood pressure, although he’s not yet sure exactly how it works. “We know that slow, deep breathing relaxes and dilates blood vessels temporarily,” he states, “but we think that it also helps our kidneys eliminate salt more efficiently, which would explain the drop in blood pressure.”
In his ongoing study, participants are asked to breathe in sync with tones generated by a special device. “The device trains them to breath slower and pace breaths until they reach six to eight breaths per minute,” explains Anderson.
Other studies are also showing that varying our breathing techniques can be an effective tool in handling and managing depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders. Medical doctors Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg have studied the effects of various breathing practices on the stress levels of tsunami victims, Australian Vietnam veterans, emergency responders and other groups that suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome.
“We started out by looking at specific yogic deep breathing techniques, such as Sudarshan Kriya yoga, qigong and others, but soon realized that combining elements of several of these techniques yielded optimal results,” remarks Gerbarg. She adds that professional breathing instruction is necessary to achieve their results, yet, “skillful control of breath patterns can be used to calm emotions, eliminate anxiety, stop obsessive worry, reduce stress over-reactivity and induce greater mental clarity and focus.”
The road to better health may well be just a few breaths away.
3 BREATHING EXERCISES
Because breathing is something we can all control and regulate, it makes a useful tool for achieving a relaxed and clear state of mind. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends these three breathing exercises to help relax and reduce stress. Try each one to see how it affects your stress and anxiety levels.
The Stimulating Breath (or 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. Breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible.
-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.
-Begin with a maximum of 15 sec onds. Increase subsequent practice sessions by five seconds or so, until reaching a full minute. Done properly, this exercise brings a feeling of invigoration comparable to the heightened awareness achieved after a good workout.
The 4-7-8 Exercise (or Relaxing Breath)
This exercise is simple, takes little time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere, in any position. Learn it first by sitting with your back straight. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there. You will be exhaling through your mouth; 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.
- 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 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 down.
This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Practice it at least twice a day. 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, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a useful tool to use when anything upsetting happens—before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. Everyone can benefit from it.
Breath counting is a simple, yet challenging, technique used in Zen meditation. 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, while 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.
-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 counting up to eight or higher. Work up to 10 minutes at a time.
Source: Andrew Weil, M.D.
Amber Lanier Nagle is a freelance writer based in Adairsville, Georgia.