Breathing is one of those things that we rarely think about. Instead we’re busy texting, posting, filtering, and downloading. Because our plates are so full and because breathing is automatic, we figure, why do we need to pay attention to it? Yes, we naturally breathe about 25,000 breaths per day, but are we breathing properly? Let’s find out!
First, why is it so important to breathe, besides the obvious answer that it keeps us alive? When breathing properly — that is, through the diaphragm (the muscle that rests horizontally across the base of the rib cage) versus bad breathing, which is through the chest/abdomen — it’s highly beneficial for the body and mind. When you practice diaphragmatic breathing, you send oxygen into every single cell in your body. Those needy little cells constantly need a new supply of oxygen to give you the most amount of energy throughout your day. And who doesn’t love having more energy? Through respiration, your cells inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. When you breathe shallowly, only a small amount of air is taken in, thus less oxygen into your lungs.
A quick brush-up on anatomy: Breathing is controlled by the nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The former is your fight or flight responses. It controls heart rate, the adrenal glands, and breathing. The latter prepares the body for rest and also helps the digestive system extract nutrients from food. When you are scared or nervous, you can shift the body into parasympathetic mode by using your breath. When you breathe shallowly, you are keeping your body in the sympathetic state and this signals stress to the body. Diaphragmatic breathing is relaxing to the automatic nervous system and is also essential for those that want to experience deep meditation.
Most of us, however, take shallow breaths throughout the day. Anyone who’s ever taken a yoga class has practiced diaphragmatic breathing, but since we can’t be in yoga class 24/7, it’s important that we practice diaphragmatic breathing on our own time. Here’s where to start:
- Make it a point to practice diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes every day. You can do it right when you wake up and before going to bed, or you can even practice in your car when you have time to kill. Here’s how: Breathe smoothly and slowly through your nose. Breathe with the diaphragm, allowing the ribs to flare out to the sides, while the shoulders, upper chest, and abdomen remain still. Breathe at a depth that feels comfortable for you. Don’t pause between breaths, keep things flowing. Start by inhaling and exhaling the same duration. Then when that feels good, try exhaling twice as long as the inhalation.
- Consider signing up for yoga and meditation classes for assisted breathing exercises.
- If you’re a fast speaker (like myself), you can try to speak slower and take more breaths between words and sentences.