Just Breathe….

Just Breathe….You’ve heard it before: there are so many health benefits to effective breathing.  The breath can help:

Revitalize your body and your energy levels

Improve your immune response

Reduce stress and anxiety

Ensure your body’s optimal performance during exercise

But do you believe it?  Does it seem possible that something that is “free” and so readily available to us can actually have such a powerful effect on our health and performance?  Absolutely!  It just takes proper technique to experience the effects, and with long term consistency the benefits can be huge!  Interesting to consider breathing with technique…isn’t it? …especially since it’s something that we do so naturally and without thinking. So what do we mean by “proper technique”?  There are a number of different breathing techniques that are selectively targeted toward achieving specific effects in response to different types of intentional and unintentional “stressors” to the body. There are techniques for relaxation/fighting anxiety, for better sports performance, for better digestion, and more….We’ll explore some of those techniques in a moment, but to keep things easy…as simple as breathing…J, keep in mind that by just taking in as much air as possible and exhaling as completely as possible, you are already gifting your body with the benefits of the breath.  Bottom line: our organs need more oxygen for optimal performance, and they need something to stimulate a steady release (outflow) of carbon dioxide.  If our organs are happy, then we feel better.  Anything we do to increase oxygen flow is sure to improve our overall health.

When we breathe automatically we tend to take in the bare minimum during inhalation, filling our lungs with half a liter of air…while our full long capacity is at least five to six liters!  As a result, our exhalations are shorter too; we don’t release enough carbon dioxide and don’t make enough room for more fresh air.  And when we’re under emotional stress or anxiety, our breath becomes even shorter.  So when it comes to breathing for good health, there are several techniques one can practice.

If you would like to experiment with breath work and what it can do for you, I would propose that you start with the simplest of techniques:  breathing through the nose deeply, focusing on filling up the belly with air, and then the chest, slowly counting up 4 to 5 seconds…then exhaling for the same number of seconds by first emptying out the chest and then squeezing all of the air out of the belly.   To start, practice this for 5 minutes once a day and also whenever you feel challenged or stressed.  Make sure that your spine is erect whether you are sitting, standing or lying down.  If you place your right hand on the navel point and your left hand on your chest, you should be able to feel and follow the movement of the breath.    In time you should be able to extend the number of seconds in each inhalation/exhalation to 8 seconds, 9 seconds, and so on….taking in more oxygen and squeezing out more carbon dioxide, eliminating toxins, etc…

This basic breathing technique can be done anywhere and at any time.   Studies have shown that breathing in this way raises levels of serotonin, which can ease symptoms of depression.  Once you work up to it, a good 20-minute session can increase the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, helping improve mental concentration and focus.  With lengthened sessions and consistent practice this breath work ensures sufficient intake of oxygen, leading to lowered blood pressure.

Practicing breath work can be done in isolation, but is also highly effective when combined with movement in practices such as Yoga and Qigong, and as such has an even greater positive impact on health through energy management.  If you do yoga today for instance and are not being mindful of the synchronization of breath with movement, you are missing out!  The breath is actually quite integral to these healing practices, and a big contributor to the wonderful unexplainable energized feeling that we experience…not to mention how it helps us power through some of the more challenging moves and poses!

Beyond basic deep breathing there are other more advanced methods for controlling our breath that can be used to improve performance during exercise, when a big energy jolt is required, or when facing overwhelming stress.   Alternate Nostril Breathing for instance, provides calm and balance. It involves a 3 minute or longer pattern of inhaling into the left nostril while blocking off the right and then exhaling out of the right nostril while blocking off the left one.  When the pattern is reversed (blocking left nostril for inhale, and right nostril for exhale) you experience an energizing/awakening effect.

We can also leverage the breath for improving athletic performance.   Practicing Nourishing programs that replenish energy with the help of the breath such as Qigong and Yoga are exceptional cross-training tools for runners, those involved in high contact sports and strength trainers.  But here are a few sports-specific breathing tips that you can implement right away:  Runners – lengthen your inhalations and exhalations by pacing them with your steps and this will improve your speed and endurance; Basketball, Football players – If you anticipate a load/impact, breath deep and brace the core….this will make it more difficult to be knocked down and will protect the spine; Weight Lifters – exhale during the effort phase of the exercise as this helps manage the load while maintaining lumbar stability.

So whether you are an athlete or just looking to improve your overall health or mood, there just isn’t a simpler or more cost-effective tool at your disposal, than your breath.   Be mindful of it!Rachel MoncayoBrookhaven Fitness Studio