By Igne Aleliunas, for Summersalt Yoga
Breathing is, well… important. Breathing ensures that all of our vital organs receive enough oxygen to function, keeping us alive. And, ironically, breathing is something that a lot of us do wrong, without paying too much attention. So what can we do to breathe properly and how can various breathing techniques improve our well-being?
The forgotten art of breathing
Breathing is an instinctual thing. We all are born knowing how to breathe – it is literally the first thing we do right after we enter this world. But somewhere along the way people tend to forget what’s natural. Stress, anxiety, lack of physical activities, bad posture from hunching over a computer or a smartphone – it all adds up, until we’re left taking short, shallow breaths that barely provide enough oxygen for brain, let alone inner organs. The lack of oxygen, therefore, impairs bodily functions and might leave you feeling out of sorts, confused, sleepy and sluggish. Shallow breathing also increases heart rate and blood pressure, sending the body into a never-ending state of distress, the fight-or-flight mode. The process of “forgetting” to breathe is slow and its effects usually manifest when it’s too late and you end up having to re-learn proper breathing techniques. And the best teachers for that are actually… babies!
Learning from the best
When it comes to breathing, babies are natural at it. The stresses of life haven’t caught up to them yet, so everything they do is instinctual. When you look at a sleeping baby, you see their belly rising and falling in a fast rhythm. It doesn’t mean that we have to adjust our breathing pace to that of an infant, since babies and kids naturally breathe faster, but what we do have to pay attention to is the depth of their breath. Babies breathe with their bellies, using all their lungs, making sure that oxygen reaches all the vital organs. Keeping this in mind, place one hand on your chest and another on your belly. Breathe in – as deep as you can. Which hand rises? How deep is your breath? If your belly rises, even if it’s the upper part right below the diaphragm–it’s quite alright. But if it’s the chest that rises – or, worse, only your shoulders – it’s time to re-learn breathing!
The deeper, the better
No learning process is easy, and reclaiming your natural breathing pattern is no exception. It might take some conscious effort at first, but in the long run it will definitely be worth it. While lying or sitting in a comfortable position, try to inhale as deeply as possible, focusing on the point right below your bellybutton. Gradually increase the time it takes to breathe in and breathe out; notice how the belly rises and falls rhythmically. Deep breathing has a lot of benefits – it reduces heart rate and blood pressure, relaxes muscles, relieves tension, massages the diaphragm and inner organs. It’s also a great exercise on mindfulness – while you concentrate on slowly breathing in and out, time slows down, making it easier to focus on the now. And when you need that extra concentration – that’s right, just take deep breaths. With time, try to incorporate deep breathing into your daily activities – walking, cycling, doing household chores. And no matter what kind of physical activity you prefer, deep breathing will make your body more relaxed and just a little bit more flexible.
Mix it up
Even though deep breathing is an exercise in its own right, it’s good to mix it up once in a while and try out different techniques. While simply inhaling and exhaling through the nose is good, it is by far not the only breathing pattern and more a basis for future exploring. A great way to make your exhalation more powerful is to breathe in through the nose and breathe out through your mouth in one short, but hefty burst. Try changing the breathing pattern – inhale slowly, hold, then exhale faster. If you’re in need of a quick boost, try breathing in through one nostril and breathing out through the other – the concentration will help you focus and become more energetic. It’s also good to engage your body – stand upright and, while inhaling, slowly raise your arms above your head, then lower them as you breathe out. Repeat this for several minutes. This exercise is a great concentration booster and a wonderful way to kick-start your day. Another great way to get some energy flowing through your body is by way of short, forceful exhalations. Sit comfortably with your chest open, inhale and then begin a set of short exhalations, at the same time thrusting your abdomen inwardly, towards your spine. Make 20–30 repetitions at a time. Need help winding down after a hard day or having trouble falling asleep? Go back to the basics – inhale and exhale through the nose, gradually slowing the pace and prolonging the time it takes to breathe in and out.
So when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, check in with your breathing – are you taking deep breaths or are you engaging only the tips of your lungs? Control your breathing pattern, be conscious of it and remember – breathe like babies do!