All, Educational, Informative

Controlling Your Stress: BREATH

So many of us go through life never thinking about our breath. And why should we? Doesn’t breathing happen involuntarily?

While our brains will luckily inform our breathing whether we are consciously thinking about it or not, breathing is one instrument that we can train and utilize on a conscious level, in order to control other subconscious/involuntary functions that greatly impact our health.

Nose vs Mouth Breathing

Your nose is the organ of respiration; that is its principal job. While it is possible to also ingest food and liquid through your nose, most of us would cringe at the thought of doing so. Conversely, I invite you to consider the action of breathing through your mouth to be an equally ridiculous practice.

Mouth breathing is incredibly inefficient, as it bypasses all of the critical neurological signaling that occurs when air passes through the nasal mucosa of the nose. Mouth breathing also tends to be associated with shallow, chest breathing (apical breathing), utilizing only the uppermost part of the lungs. This triggers a stress response in the body and keeps the nervous system in “fight or flight” mode.

The shallow breathing that occurs through the mouth consists of far more breaths per minute, leading to something known as over-breathing. This creates a very poor exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and can lead to carbon dioxide depletion. CO2 depletion creates a pH imbalance which starves the tissues of oxygen, making the synthesis of ATP quite challenging. The result is complete exhaustion and a potential for chronic fatigue.

Poor oxygen exchange will greatly impact athletic performance as well. When exercising, it is best to train yourself to breathe through your nose as much as possible for optimal performance and greater endurance.

Mouth-breathers also lose facial structure and muscular support which often results in collapsed airways. This contributes to snoring and sleep apnea, causing fragmented sleep and metabolic issues, ultimately contributing to weight gain. There is also a known correlation between mouth breathing and a worsening of asthmatic symptoms, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Breathing through the nose acts as a primary defense for the body, as it captures all manner of pathogens in its mucosal lining. It also sends vital messages to the brain that signal regular and appropriate breathing patterns, inevitably affecting heart rate and blood pressure.

More importantly, breathing through the nose allows us to activate the lowermost part of the lungs, allowing for optimal oxygen exchange. In this way, we also utilize the diaphragm, an enormous, umbrella-shaped muscle that divides the lungs and heart from the rest of the abdominal viscera. We can call this type of breathing “belly breathing”. It is a long, slow, relaxed breath that fills the entire thorax, and then empties it with an exhale equal in length to, if not slower than, the inhale.

This type of diaphragmatic breathing upregulates the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling to the brain that there is no imminent danger and that you can relax. Training your breath in this way, allows you to reap all the benefits that the parasympathetic nervous system has to offer:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Improved digestion
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved metabolic function
  • Improved immune function
  • Improved mood
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased pain
  • Improved appearance
  • Improved libido
  • General sense of well-being

In addition, using your diaphragmatic breath allows you to activate your deep/postural musculature, which leads to greater control, stabilization and coordination of movements. This way of breathing also allows for greater proprioceptive awareness and balance, and can even help to diminish pain in areas that had been lacking breath. In essence, diaphragmatic breathing is a totally accessible form of pain management.

Breathing Exercises

1. SOFT-BELLY BREATHING

Position Options:

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, feet firmly planted on the ground
  • Sitting in lotus position, on a chair or on the ground
  • Lying on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor (can also be done on a bed)

Action:

  • Place hands softly on your abdomen, around your navel.
  • Slowly start to inhale through your nose, feeling your abdomen expand.
  • Slowly start to exhale through your nose, feeling your abdomen deflate and contract.

This should not be labored or forced. Use your hands to help sense and guide your abdominal movement. If you are having difficulty, you may find it easiest to feel the expansion while lying comfortably on your back.

Tip:

Get into a rhythm. The inhale/exhale should feel like ocean waves, rhythmically rising and falling. You may even envision the ocean as you perform this exercise, turning this simple action of breathing into a beautiful meditation.

Try this for 5-10 minutes every day; first thing in the morning, right before bed, during your afternoon break or during your commute.

2. PROGRESSING THE INHALE/EXHALE

Once you have mastered the nose breathing and abdominal expansion of the above exercise, you may start to work on slowing and expanding your breath.

To do this, simply keep increasing your inhale and your exhale by one second. You can do the increase on each breath, every two breaths or every four breaths; the progression is up to you.

Example:

Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds/exhale through the nose for 4 seconds – 4 times
Inhale through the nose for 5 seconds/exhale through the nose for 5 seconds – 4 times
Inhale through the nose for 6 seconds/exhale through the nose for 6 seconds – 4 times
And so on…………

You may continue on and on until you can no longer elongate your breath. To end, return to your normal breathing and reconnect with your surroundings before continuing with your day.

3. NADI SHODHANA – ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING

Translated roughly as “purification of the channel”, this breathing exercise has a long tradition in Ayurvedic medicine, where it is thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain, create mental clarity, reduce anxiety and foster a sense of well-being.

This exercise is one of my personal favorites; it is almost intoxicating.

For those of you who have trouble meditating, this is an awesome exercise as it helps you reap all the benefits of meditation while keeping your mind focused on a task, so that it does not wander so much.

Position:

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, feet firmly planted on the ground
  • Sitting in lotus position, on a chair or on the ground (spine tall)
  • Right hand in Vishnu Mudra (index & middle fingers folded towards the base of the right thumb; right thumb straight; ring & pinky fingers straight and together)
  • Left hand rests comfortably on your lap or in Gyan Mudra (tips of thumb and index finger touching; remaining three fingers extended)

Action:

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through both nostrils, expanding the belly
  • Use your right thumb in Vishnu Mudra to gently close the right nostril
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your left nostril
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril
  • Use your ring & pinky fingers in Vishnu Mudra to gently close the left nostril
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your right nostril
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your right nostril
  • Use your right thumb in Vishnu Mudra to gently close the right nostril
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your left nostril
  • Continue this pattern for 5-10 minutes
  • End by exhaling slowly and completely through your left nostril

Furthering Your Practice

Now that you are breathing deeply and rhythmically, activating your diaphragm and lower lungs, keep that breath going while adding a meditation.

Adding a Visualization to Your Meditation:

  • Imagine your third eye (ajna chakra) – encompasses your midbrain and hypothalamus; functions of the pineal and pituatary glands; intuition and perception
  • As you inhale through both nostrils, see the breath as light, rising up to this area of your brain
  • As you hold the inhale at the top, imagine an orb of healing light uniting and harmonizing this area
  • Slowly exhale the breath and let everything go
  • Repeat this imagery for 5-10 breaths

OR

  • Imagine the space behind your navel (manipura chakra) – encompasses the solar plexus, diaphragm, digestive organs; personal-identity and self-assurance
  • As you inhale through both nostrils, see the breath as light, rising up to your midbrain, and then drop all the way down your spine and collect in a pool behind your navel
  • As you exhale slowly, see this pool of light growing brighter; your own personal sun
  • Repeat the breath 5-10 times, strengthening that pool of light behind your navel with each breath; imagining it bathing your organs and your self-identity in healing energy.

Adding a Sound (Mantra) to Your Meditation:

  • Maintaining deep belly breathing and keeping that pool of light behind your navel center, start to add in some sound
  • As you inhale slowly and deeply, say to yourself “so”, meaning “individual self”
  • As you exhale slowly and completely, say to yourself “hum”, meaning “higher self”
  • As you repeat this for 5 minutes, eventually your individual self and your higher self will meet. The “so hum” will rise up independently of the breath, out of the pool of light behind your navel center.
  • Feel more connected to your center and your true self

Continue Reading the Blog Series

For help remembering to breathe or for opening up your breath, try our BE Light BREATHE therapeutic oil blend. This blend would be an awesome addition to any of the breathing exercises in this blog.

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