Breathe Yourself Silly
This article belongs to Just Bee column.
Countless are the times I have heard the phrase, "Take a deep breath." Before a big test, during a competitive sporting event, or even while sitting in traffic I have heard these words being uttered by someone (if not by my own interior monologue).
However, I never understood how this was supposed to help. Constantly being told to breathe just made me more tense and out of breath. Because it never seemed to work for me, "Take a deep breath" eventually became an empty shell of a phrase, and I stopped trying altogether. It wasn't until several years ago, when I started to practice hatha yoga that I began to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanics of breathing. I soon discovered that I had been doing it wrong for many years. In those early months of doing yoga, I became very lightheaded during the pranayama (breathing) exercises.
As a beginner student, I was also notorious for giggling during the most lucid moments of class. After class one day, my yoga instructor explained to me that this was normal and what I was experiencing was a "natural high". Apparently, my brain wasn't yet accustomed to receiving such an abundant supply of oxygen. After a few more classes, however, the lightheadedness began to wane and I started to feel much more grounded both on and off the yoga mat.
Dealing with the stress of my job became less difficult, and I had much more energy to accomplish the various tasks I had been putting off due to "utter exhaustion". My close friends and family had noticed that my overall mood had changed for the better, too. So, I was finally learning to breathe correctly.
But what had I been doing wrong in the past? Well, for as long as I can remember, taking a deep breath meant drawing in my belly and pushing out my chest, while trying to take a big gulp of air, just as I had seen others do. But, my instructors, well–versed in human anatomy, pointed out my folly. They taught me about the actions of the diaphragm. When you inhale, the diaphragm pushes down, creating an expansion in the belly and lower ribs. Pulling in my belly was constricting the movement of this massive muscle that radiates from just below the heart and attaches to both to the breastbone and lower spine.
Diaphragmatic breathing powerfully affects the movement of your spine. Douglas Keller, in his book, Refining the Breath, asserts, "Diaphragmatic breathing…massages the heart and…stimulates all the major organs of the body to work well, which is why it has such a profound effect on our well being." Regularly practicing this breath truly began to have a profound effect on my life, and as it did, I grew anxious to share it with others. Now as a yoga instructor, I guide my students through deep breathing exercises daily.
I find myself telling them to "take a deep breath" quite frequently, but I vigilantly monitor their efforts to be sure they don't make the same mistake I once did. Some people may dismiss this idea because they assert that breathing is, after all, an involuntary function. And they are certainly correct in this claim. As long as your heart is beating and your airways are clear, you will probably get enough oxygen to survive each day. Nonetheless, mindful breathing, or the practice of what yogis call a "full breath" can move one into a state of vibrant health where he or she may not only survive, but thrive. It is not uncommon to feel rather spent or stale at any time, on any given day of the week.
For many, this stagnant feeling may be a result of simply not breathing fully with the diaphragm. For an easy exercise you could do at your desk, place your hands on your stomach just below the breastbone, with the tips of your middle fingers grazing each other. Breathe into your hands and feel your belly lift. Feel your fingers spread apart as your diaphragm moves downward. Feel the expansion of both your lower ribs and belly with the inhalation. Now exhale, letting your belly and ribs release down and in as your fingers come together again. Repeat this several times and then return to your natural breath. The art of mindful breathing, also known as pranayama, will improve your overall well being. It will sharpen your concentration, soothe your nerves and bring you back to your most balanced self.
Moreover, Pranayama can calm a racing heart, boost your memory and help detoxify your body of impurities. So, the next time someone tells you to "take a deep breath", instead of rolling your eyes and dismissing it as rubbish, you may want to give it a try.