Breathing. It's one of the most important bodily function we have, as our very life depends on it happening practically every minute of every day. Our bodies can't function or survive for very long without a steady flow of air. If we learn how to harness the power of breathing, however, it becomes a tool for more than just basic survival. What makes breathing unique from other essential bodily functions is that breathing happens both consciously and unconsciously, making it a potential gateway between our conscious and unconscious minds. It can have extremely powerful effects on our consciousness, even mimicking the effects of strong psychoactive drugs (Google "Holotropic Breathing"). Though our breathing often happens outside of our awareness, taking control of breathing can lead to substantial benefits for both the body and the mind.
Before discussing specific breathing methods, you have to first understand how deep breathing works. The way we tend to naturally breathe is different from optimal breathing. Take a minute to focus on your breathing. Just breathe normally and see what you notice. Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? When you inhale and exhale, do you feel it primarily in your chest or your stomach? Where exactly do you feel it in these areas? Try counting how many breaths you take in a minute, or maybe how many seconds it takes you to both inhale and exhale. See what you come up with before continuing on with the article.
Most people who have never done breathing exercises will notice the following: they breathe through either their nose or mouth exclusively, they tend to feel their breath in their chest, and they take frequent breaths, usually with inhales and exhales only lasting 1-2 seconds each (or about 20-30 breaths per minute). These are all features of shallow breathing. If this describes your breathing patterns, it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with you, it just means that you're not taking advantage of the full benefits of breathing.
Shallow breathing means you are only utilizing part of your lung capacity during each breath. We don't need our full lung capacity all of the time, and we are perfectly capable of surviving with shallow breaths. However, deep breathing, which uses as much lung capacity as possible, not only helps us survive but also helps us control our minds and bodies more effectively.
Before continuing, as with any other physical activity you should check with your doctor before attempting deep breathing practices. They're not dangerous in and of themselves, but you definitely want to ensure that you are in good enough health and don't have any underlying physical problems that could result in injury or discomfort during these practices.
The Basics of Deep Breathing
The best way to start practicing deep breathing is to work on physically lowing your breath into your abdomen. Again, you may have noticed when you focused on your breath that you felt it mostly in your chest. This is normal, but chest breathing prevents you from being able to use your full lung capacity. Try sitting in a chair with your feet on the ground at about shoulder width, back straight, head facing forward, and hands on your knees. Focus again on your breathing, but this time make sure you are breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth (this is a basic feature of almost all breathing exercises). As you inhale, try to focus on "pushing" your breath down into your stomach. Ideally, you want to focus on the area about 2-3 inches below your belly button (about at your belt line), but start with just moving your breath down as far as you can push it. A good visualization to help with this practice is to imagine you have a balloon in your stomach, and you are inflating it with every inhale, and deflating it with every exhale. Focus on your shoulders and make sure they are staying level (if you notice your shoulders rising and falling, you are still breathing primarily into your chest). When you are able to see and feel your abdomen actually inflating and deflating with each breath, you've achieved the first skill you need to practice deep breathing.
It takes some time to learn this technique effectively, so make sure you practice this skill for a while before moving on to other breathing exercises. In the next few parts of this series of articles, I’ll be discussing and teaching more advanced strategies to help you get the most out of deep breathing.
Written By 7 Cups Therapist: Scott Fantucchio, LMHC