Breathing Deeply Helps Balance Health

Would you like to do something interesting? Place one hand on your abdomen below your belly button and the other hand on your chest right below your collarbones. Take a deep breath in, and let it out. Notice which hand(s) moved.

When the breathing process is working optimally, the hand on the abdomen should move a lot, expanding like a balloon. Also, exhaling should last longer than inhaling. Was this happening for you? If not, don’t worry, most of us aren’t walking around regularly breathing this deeply. Instead, most of us are chest breathing: moving only the chest, holding in the belly in a tight, shortened exhale.

Chest breathing is meant to be a temporary state of heightened tension that kicks in when we sense danger, say, a charging lion. This state allows us to make a quick adrenaline-fueled leap, in order to avoid becoming his dinner. Unfortunately for many of us, this state has become habitual. Daily stress, slouching in seats, sucking in the belly on the quest for thin, can all result in chest breathing.

This starts a feedback loop: stress and poor posture causes chest breathing, chest breathing causes anxiety and anxiety causes more chest breathing. When we run this loop for long periods of time, it starts to wear on our physiological systems. This loop is a major contributor to stress-related health issues. On the other hand, deep breathing can bring back healthful balance.

Recent studies have revealed that deep breathing has many specific physiological and neurological effects including: Lower heart rate, calmer central nervous system, more responsive muscles, lowered blood pressure, brain growth, better immune function, stability and reduced risk of cell stress linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure and more.

So maybe breathing deeply is pretty important. How do we learn to do it? How do we make it habit?

In yoga, the techniques of breath practice have been handed down from teacher to student for more than 2,500 years. The first practitioners noticed that over time, they felt better, they were sick less often and their powers of focus and perception improved. In fact, they named breathing practice “Pranayama” which translates to “extension of the life force.” They were on to something with that name. Modern scientific research is now confirming what breath practitioners have known for thousands of years: deep breathing can improve your health, your happiness, and may lengthen your life.

This field of research is fairly new and will likely uncover more benefits of deep breathing. In the meantime, it’s never too late to stop running the loop and start breathing well. It just takes practice. 
Place one hand on your abdomen below your belly button, and the other hand on your chest right below your collarbones. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Beth Zygielbaum is the owner of Leela Yoga in Alameda. Contact her at leelayogainfo@gmail.com