Every Breath You Take
By Melissa Conroy
Roughly 20,000 times a day, you perform the same fundamental function: breathing. However, unless you are meditating, sick with a head cold or swimming, you may pay scant notice to the way your lungs continually pull life-giving oxygen into your body. Breathing is so fundamental to what we are as living beings, we often give it scarcely a thought. However, this innate process deserves more attention.
The act of breathing is one requiring several steps. First, your diaphragm, an internal muscle that lines the bottom of your rib cage, contracts and pulls it downward. This causes the ribs to expand and increases the lungs’ volume. This actually creates a partial vacuum inside your lungs which pulls air into them. To breathe out, your diaphragm and ribs relax, which reduces the volume of your lungs and forces air out of your body. Usually there is about a two-second pause, then the process starts over again, thousands of times a day.
With all the breaths that we take every day, you would think that humans would have proper breathing down correctly, right? As a matter of fact, poor breathing is a very common problem and many of us are starving our bodies of the oxygen they need to function well. Poor breathing comes in a variety of forms. People who are striving for a flat belly often suck in their stomachs or try to keep them taut which usually results in shallow breathing. Sitting for long periods often creates breathing problems because flexed hips and hunched-over shoulders do not allow the abdomen to expand and the lungs to fully pull air into the body. Finally, even though breathing is largely a subconscious act like walking or eating, it is something that we have control over and can improve or impair by our actions.
Breathing is virtually the only way you can give your body the life-sustaining oxygen it needs, but sadly many people starve their bodies by not in taking oxygen as they should. Oxygen-starved bodies react in a variety of ways. Failing to breathe properly can create all sorts of problems such as poor sleeping patterns, irritableness, and mood swings. Failing to breathe correctly can aggravate health issues like blood pressure, headaches, and mental fogginess. Any number of health complaints can be traced back to not breathing right.
On the plus side, proper breathing offers many benefits. Yoga and meditation practitioners have known for thousands of years that focusing on good breathing can help people calm their anxiety, deal with stress and energize themselves. Good breathing also leads to many health benefits such as increasing the circulation of blood (great news for diabetics), giving their minds a boost and improving the immune system. People who suffer from chronic pain can use breathing to find comfort and help alleviate the pain. Pregnant women use Lamaze breathing to ease the trauma of birth and help making the birthing process calmer for them and their babies. You have nothing to lose from proper breathing and everything to gain.
Luckily, learning how to breathe right is not that difficult and there are many exercises you can do in order to help you improve your breathing. Simply being aware of your breathing and devoting some attention to it can create good results.
One of the important things to know is that many people breathe from their chest, not their abdomen. Chest breathing typically leads to shallower breaths, so it is preferable to breath from your abdomen. If you are not sure how you breathe, put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach and watch which hand moves when you breath. If the hand on your chest moves up and down, you are not breathing properly. Your abdomen should contract and expand and your chest should remain relatively stationary.
To help you train yourself to breath from your abdomen, try this exercise. Take a book and go to a wall. Put the book so that one end of it is resting against your stomach and the other end is on the wall. Keeping your back straight, lean slightly into the wall but not touching it: the book should be propped between you and the wall. Breathe outward. If you are breathing properly, your stomach should inflate and push you away from the wall as you inhale and deflate as you exhale. If you remain stationary and are not moving back and forth as you breathe, this means you are breathing from your chest.
An alternative to this technique is to lie on the floor and place a lightweight object like a firm pillow or small book on your abdomen. Resting comfortably, breathe in and out and keep your eye on the object. It should rise and fall with your breathing.
Another breathing exercise that is helpful: Either sit or stand in a comfortable position. Take a deep breath for the count of “one” and let it out for the count of “one”. Then take another breath for the count of “one, two,” then let it out for the count of “one, two.” Gradually work your way up to the count of 10 so that you are slowly inhaling in 10 counts and exhaling in 10 counts. This is a terrific exercise to help you gain control over your breath because the higher the numbers go, the more you have to regulate your breathing, gradually letting air in and out. This particular exercise may take some time to master, but it is a very good one to use.
As you are practicing your breathing, be aware that nose-breathing is generally more beneficial than mouth-breathing for several reasons. The nasal passages warm, moisturize, filter, dehumidify and smell the air that passes through them, something the mouth cannot do. You exhale through your nose more slowly than you do through your mouth, and this slow exhalation gives the lungs more time to extract oxygen from the air and make sure that there is a proper oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange rate. If you tend to breathe through your nose during the day, that will carry over into the night. People who breathe through their noses during sleep tend to snore less and be less prone to sleep apnea than mouth breathers.
Finally, the quality of air you breathe is important too. Modern building designs are made to be energy-efficient which is great from an environmental perspective, but bad from a health perspective since the same efforts which reduce energy consumption (sealing windows, patching drafts, installing weather-stripping) also work to prevent fresh air from getting inside. According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, during the early and mid 1900s, building standards required that there be approximately 15 cubic feet of outside air flowing into the building every minute per person. However, in 1973, this was changed to 5 cubic feet. This was one of the many reasons that the term “sick building syndrome” was coined. It is used to describe a situation in which people’s illnesses appear to be linked to time spent in a particular building or area of the building. Modern houses, offices and buildings often contain poor quality air full of diseases, molds and other allergens. This is why it is vital to periodically open your windows to air out your house, make certain to get your heating ducts cleaned out and keep an eye out for mold and other irritants that may be present.
Getting outside and breathing fresh air is important too. However, a stroll along a busy street will put you in contact with automobile exhaust and other pollutants, so for better breathing, head for off-beaten paths that lead to clean air. Wander through the woods, take the dog for a walk or stroll along the beach while practicing good breathing techniques.
In the time it took you to read this article, you probably breathed at least 50 times, a tiny fraction of the number of inhalations you will take today and the millions you will draw over your lifetime. Do your lungs, circulatory system and brain a favor today and take a deep breath. Expand your abdomen, draw air deeply into your lungs, then let it out slowly. It’s just that easy!