HEALTH BENEFITS OF BREATHING
Part 1: When It Comes to Breathing, We Suck
Breathing. It’s one of the few things that all of us who are interested in the business of living must do. And we do it a lot. 16 breaths per minute, on average. That 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 a day, 8,409,600 a year and 672,768,000 breaths over the course of an average lifetime. You’d think, with all that practice, that we’d be good at it. But we’re not. When it comes to breathing, most of us are hopeless and it’s making us sick.
How Come We Suck at Breathing?
Our modern lifestyle has a lot to do with it. Stress is a constant factor and a lot of us spend our days busily sitting still. We park up at our desks, hunch over our computers, and take short, sharp sips of breath as we try to navigate a path through our work and our personal lives.
Even worse, we breathe unconsciously. With so much else to think about, something which takes so little effort and absolutely no thought is to be celebrated. We can put it to one side, not worry about it. Trouble is, proper, healthy breathing requires conscious effort.
Why Does Poor Breathing Contribute to Poor Health?
Most of us only use one third of our natural lung capacity. Instead of using our diaphragms as our main breathing muscle, we rely on the weaker intercostal muscles in our rib cage. The result is that we breathe too shallow and too quick. We’re not drinking in the amount of oxygen that we should and we’re not ridding ourselves of sufficient carbon dioxide.
And so we become subject to ill health. Starved of oxygen, which is vital for the production of energy and for the maintenance of healthy cells, our bodies experience a toxic build-up. This not only reduces our levels of vitality, but also lowers our ability to resist disease. As a result, we become susceptible to a whole host of problems, including fatigue, chest and back pain, sleep disorders and stomach upsets, whilst other conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and hypertension can be exacerbated.
If we want to protect ourselves against ill health (and that’s a given for all of us), then proper, conscious breathing is a good place to start.
Part 2: Every Breath I Take
So, How Do I Breathe Properly?
A good place to start is to make breathing a conscious action (at least occasionally!). We need to be aware, first of all, of how we breathe and, on the back of that, what we can do breathe better.
For most of us, the problem is that we breathe from our chest, rather than our abdomen. We need to learn to breathe more deeply, bringing our diaphragm into play and pulling more air into our lungs.
There are all sorts of breathing techniques which will help us do this (sooo many books and videos on this topic, should you care to look for them!), but like any new skill, it’s best to start with the basics and work from there. Here’s an easy-to-follow, 5-minute breathing exercise that we can all benefit from:
* To begin, lie down on a blanket or rug, legs straight and slightly apart, arms relaxed at the sides, palms facing the air. Alternatively, sit up straight, back upright and spine lengthened.
* Once comfortable, make a conscious effort to breathe through the nose, mouth closed. This allows the tiny hairs and the mucus membranes in the nose to do their job and filter out dust and toxins, something which simply doesn’t happen if we breathe through our mouths.
* Inhale deeply, making sure that the abdomen rises along with the chest, as though the stomach is a balloon filling with air.
* Retain the breath, even if for only a second. Properly performed, even brief retention of breath provides profound therapeutic benefits to every organ, gland and functional system in the body. In actual breathing exercises, breath retention for 3-4 seconds helps slow down heartbeat, reduce blood pressure, and trigger cellular respiration.
* After inhaling for 3 to 4 seconds, exhale slowly for up to 7 to 8 seconds (it may take a while to get the hang of this, so just go with what you can, initially), ensuring as much air as possible is released. Repeat for approximately five minutes, remaining completely relaxed and engaged in the simple process of breathing properly.
After a while, this kind of breathing will not only seem natural to you but will bring with it a sharp increase in your sense of vitality and wellbeing. You’ll become more conscious of how you should be breathing, you’ll start to fix your posture (less slouching in front of your computer or on your sofa is a good thing!), and you’ll be better equipped to handle stress.
Given time, you might also choose to discover more advanced breathing techniques, or even take up yoga, which places a great deal of focus on proper breathing and the benefits it can provide. Yoga is, in fact, integrally linked with the yogic science of Pranayama. Prānāyām is a Sanskrit word meaning “extension of the prāṇ or breath” or, “extension of the life force”.
Breathing. It’s something we do a lot. It makes sense then, that we should do it well.