Breathing Techniques to Improve Health
The Skill of Breathing
Breathing presents us with a paradox. On one hand, it is so important we cannot live without it. On the other hand, for much of the time, breathing goes on in the background without thought or effort. It’s easily taken for granted. Breathing is one of those master processes that influences just about everything else in your body including our stress levels, posture and movement. Your breathing pattern is connected even to body processes that seem separate like our digestion and brain function. It’s time to look at breathing in a new way. As a skill. Just like playing the ukulele, juggling chainsaws or riding your unicycle, breathing is a skill that requires practice.
Research shows us that breathing exercise has many payoffs. One study showed increases in proteins that protect against oxidative stress in immune cells. This was found in practitioners who did yoga breathing exercises for one year. Shorter studies have shown decreases in cortisol (stress hormone) in subjects with diabetes, subjects with heart disease and in college students stressed out during exams. Breathing exercise has also decreased self-reported PTSD ratings in veterans and lessened pain perceptions.
Breathing exercises use a pattern of breathing called belly breathing. Air doesn’t really go into your belly but it’s a good way to think about the action. What belly breathing really means is breathing with your diaphragm muscle which is a powerful, specialized muscle for pulling air into your lungs. The diaphragm muscle is also a key player in posture, core strength, digestion, circulation and natural back support. When you use this muscle your belly tends to stick out, which is why we call it belly breathing.
Here are five breathing exercise you can use to boost your breathing skill.
Ahhh Crocodiles. Famous for their huge jaws lined with teeth. And, when they aren’t using those jaws they are known for their penchant for relaxing in the sun. Picture how, when a crocodile is laying on land, their bellies bulge and the crocs body rises and falls with each deep breath. They sure look relaxed, which is the goal with crocodile breathing.
To crocodile breath lay on your belly on the floor, a carpeted floor is good. Turn your head to the side, or, if this is uncomfortable for your neck, use a rolled up towel as a forehead rest. Breath deeply pushing your belly into the floor. Be mindful of the pressure and the way your body, ribs and even low back move and expand as you fill with air. Continue with deep inhales and slow exhales. Your goal is two minutes but go longer if desired. These very deep breathes are beneficial. They move air out of all the dead space, meaning that air space in our lungs that just sits there and doesn’t get replaced with fresh air. The contact between your body and the floor and pressure created by the deep breaths stimulates relaxation. This is also good way for those beginners who may have difficulty learning how to belly breath. All of that belly contact with the floor lets you feel the action of the breath which will give you feedback and help you learn the belly breathing pattern.
Pursed Lip Breathing
This technique uses your lips to slow the air escaping from your exhales. This has a couple benefits. It slows your exhale so you spend more time exhaling than inhaling. Long exhales charge up the parasympathetic (rest and relax) side of your nervous system. This is why breathing exercises can cause drops in heart rate and increases in heart rate variability, which is a marker of how balanced your nervous system is. Pursed lip breathing also creates back pressure that will keep the small spaces in your lungs inflated longer. Thereby exchanging more CO2 for O2.
For pursed lip breathing take a deep breath, hold for a second while you are full of air, then exhale slowly through pursed lips, letting air escape only through a small hole between your lips. It is sort of like blowing out birthday candles only more slowly. You’ll probably create breathy, blowing sounds on this one. That's good. Make the exhales long. Your target is a two minute session but do one or two breaths whenever you need to tone down your nervous system.
This technique is meant to be a diaphragm workout and a way to make that deep belly breath your normal, automatic way to breath. This is particularly important for those individuals who may have a habit of breathing with their upper chest, neck and shoulder muscles instead of deep breathing with the diaphragm.
Place a hand flat over your navel and inhale with a short, quick sniff. Follow that with a gentle exhale. Exhale all of your air. If that was comfortable continue but with multiple sniffs in a row. Bring air in each sniff until you are full (perhaps 3 or 4 sniffs). Follow each series of sniffs with a gentle exhale. You goal is a one minute session.
Breath of Fire
Yoga and breathing techniques go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Just about any breathing technique, or a version of it, is represented in yoga. Breath of Fire is a great one. If the sniffing technique is easy for you Breath of Fire may be a great next step. This exercise brings your abdominal muscles into the mix. The action for this technique is opposite of sniffing. Instead of drawing short, quick breaths into the nose you will exhale short, quick, powerful breathes out of your nose.
Sit comfortably with tall posture. Start full of air and exhale a short, quick burst out of your nostrils. This will contract your abdominal wall powerfully. You body may shake or bounce with these quick, powerful bursts. Also, there will be nasal noises and nostril flaring. As long as you are comfortable these are all good things. After the exhale, inhale quickly. The inhale is really done without sucking any air in by your own effort. Instead, the inhale is quick and automatic because of the recoil of your lungs. Your focus is definitely on the quick, repeated exhales. You target is a 30 second bout. This one can be tricky so if you need to see Breath of Fire in action check out this video.
The Box Breathing technique is a way to balance the two sides of your nervous system; the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and relax) sides. Also, unlike our other exercises, box breathing combines a breathing exercise with a breath holding exercise. While breath holding you are giving your higher brain centers, such as your prefrontal context, a work out. This is because you need those higher centers to override the respiratory center in your brainstem which, if it was calling all the shots, would make you take a breath right away.
For this technique inhale through your nose for four seconds. Then exhale for four seconds, then hold for four seconds while lungs are empty before starting the next inhale. Four seconds is a starting point. With practice increase the duration of each step to eight seconds or more if you feel comfortable.
By treating breathing like a skill that can be improved we can tap into the many benefits that come with belly breathing and a strong diaphragm.
Attila Szabo & Ágnes Kocsis (2016): Psychological effects of deepbreathing: the impact of expectancy-priming, Psychology, Health & Medicine, DOI: 10.1080/13548506.2016.1191656
Gina Paul , Barb Elam & Steven J. Verhulst (2007) A Longitudinal Study of Students' Perceptions of Using Deep Breathing Meditation to Reduce Testing Stresses, Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 19:3, 287-292, DOI: 10.1080/10401330701366754