Learn to Breathe: Pranayama

Learn to Breathe

"I already know how to breathe, what are you talking about?"

Over the years I've trained dozens of clients and it does not take a full hand of fingers to count the number who could breathe properly when they started with me. We are a culture of chest breathers.

Relax Your Body with Deep Breathing

The easiest way to figure out if you are a chest breather is to put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Now inhale. And observe what happens to your hands. Most likely, if you are using your normal breath, the hand on your chest moved outwards and upwards while that poor, lonely hand on your belly remained still. That makes you a chest breather.

"So I breathe with my chest," you may say, "so what?"

Indeed. It may not seem like a big deal but it is one of the most beneficial changes you can make to your wellness. And here's why.

Chest breathing is a sign of stress. If you are breathing with your chest (and most likely your shoulders) and not your belly, your body is sending you a clear signal that it is stressed. Which is bad. Stress is a significant component, if not the largest component, of most lifestyle diseases, and has long-term negative impacts on the body. Even good stress needs to be dealt with or it will accumulate in the body. Unfortunately, it can be rather stressful to learn to quiet the mind and release stress in a smooth and controlled manner – not to mention it can take a long time. Who has that kind of time and energy? Luckily, there is a quicker way that relies on the connection between our mind and body.

Since the mind can be notoriously sneaky and hard to control, we can focus on the body instead. We can learn how to belly breathe. And we can learn to recognize when we are chest breathing. It really isn't that hard. If you were able to feel your hand move on your chest you are already halfway there. Now you can learn to make your belly move as well and you will have a very powerful relaxation tool at your disposal whenever needed. Who knows? Maybe your shoulders will even drop a couple of inches.

How to get your belly moving and breath flowing

There are two muscles that we need to focus on – the transversus abdominis and the diaphragm. The transversus runs across your belly from side to side, the diaphragm runs along the bottom of your rib cage, forming a roof over the organs of your belly. These two muscles must work together in order for you to take a full breath.

Here is how to become conscious of your breath. Inside your chest are your lungs, surrounded by your ribcage and held in place at the bottom by your diaphragm. In order to inhale your ribs expand outwards and your diaphragm contracts downwards into your belly. These two actions pull on your lungs, causing them to expand like balloons, creating a vacuum and signalling that it is time to inhale. Air rushes in through your nose or mouth and down into your lungs, filling the vacuum. As your lungs fill, the contents of your belly are squished which causes your belly to expands outwards (forwards and sideways) as the transversus relaxes.

Phew! You may be feeling light-headed, with all of this air inside of you. Take one moment to relish the feeling of full lungs.

Now exhale, but begin with your belly. Imagine your transversus pulling your belly button back towards your spine as it contracts, pulling your organs back to their original places and pushing the diaphragm back up towards the lungs. As you continue to exhale, your lungs deflate slightly, and the air rushes back up and out through your nose and mouth. Your ribcage contracts as the lungs deflate and you feel your hand moving back to its original position.

This is a complete breath. Inhale and the belly and chest expand, pause, exhale and the chest and belly return to their original position. It's like a wave.

A few notes about the complete breath.

First, you may be wondering about the whole idea of squishing your internal organs. You may even be thinking that it does not sound like a very good idea to be squishing your tummy and spleen. But the squish is good. It is very likely the best massage your internals will ever get. This type of belly breathing promotes healthy digestion and circulation of blood and lymph. Trust me on this one. When you get the breathing right, your tummy will thank you.

Second, you may be wondering how this will affect your stress levels. You may even be thinking that this whole thing is pretty stressful and not helping at all. Please persevere. The complete breath causes a neurochemical cascade that signals your brain that everything is all right – that it can relax. So once you get the complete breath and your belly is moving smoothly in and out, with your shoulders staying down, your body and mind will thank you with a more relaxed posture and healthier function.

No, really, it will. Even for those of you who are convinced that your shoulders are just naturally supposed to be at your ears.

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