Some Facts About Deep Breathing

In general, the human organism was not designed to breathe deeply at all times and in all situations. The depth of our breath, whether it is shallow, medium, or deep depends in large part on what it is we are doing. If we are sitting quietly reading, for example, we do not need to be breathing deeply. If we are working hard and expending a great deal of energy, however, we might well need to breathe deeply. Another situation in which deep breathing can be beneficial is when we are trying to revitalize our energy or for special or healing exercises.

Deep breathing can be important to both health and spiritual development. Such breathing can increase our vitality and promote relaxation. Unfortunately, when we try to take a so-called deep breath, many of us do the exact opposite: we suck in our bellies, raise our shoulders, and try to expand our chest. This is shallow breathing. To learn deep breathing we need to do far more than learn new breathing exercises. Before deep breathing exercises can be of any lasting value, we need to experience and understand through the direct inner sensation of our own bodies the function of the chest muscles and diaphragm in breathing, as well as the function of the belly and back. We also need to observe how unnecessary tension in our muscles impedes our breathing.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure that not only assists in breathing, but also acts as a natural partition between our heart and lungs on the one hand, and all of the other internal organs on the other. The top of the diaphragm, located about one and one-half inches up from the bottom of the sternum, actually supports the heart, while the bottom of the diaphragm is attached all the way around our lower ribs and connects also to our lower lumbar vertebrae. When we breathe, the surface of our diaphragm generally moves downward as we inhale and upward as we exhale. (See if you can sense these movements periodically throughout your day.) When we breathe fully and deeply, which is only possible when the belly releases and expands on inhalation and retracts on exhalation, the diaphragm moves farther down into the abdomen, and our lungs are able to expand more completely into the chest cavity. This means that more oxygen is taken in and more carbon dioxide is released with each breath. Of course, if we breathe both deeply and relatively quickly, we could lose too much carbon dioxide too quickly, which can cause us to overbreathe or hyperventilate.

Deep breathing, when it is easy, natural, and necessary, can have a beneficial influence on our health and well being. To understand how this happens, we need to remember that the diaphragm is attached all around the lower ribcage and has strands going down to the lumbar vertebrae. When our breathing is full and deep, the diaphragm moves through its entire range downward to massage the liver, stomach, and other organs and tissues below it, and upward to massage the heart. When our breathing is full and deep, the belly, lower ribcage, and lower back all expand on inhalation, thus drawing the diaphragm down deeper into the abdomen, and retract on exhalation, allowing the diaphragm to move fully upward toward the heart. In deep, abdominal breathing, the downward and upward movements of the diaphragm, combined with the outward and inward movements of the belly, ribcage, and lower back, help to massage and detoxify our inner organs, promote blood flow and peristalsis, and pump the lymph more efficiently through our lymphatic system. The lymphatic system, which is an important part of our immune system, has no pump other than muscular movements, including the movements of breathing.

As you begin to observe your breathing in the course of your everyday life, you may notice that you often breathe too fast for the conditions in which you find yourself, that is, you actually hyperventilate. This fast, shallow breathing expels carbon dioxide too quickly and has many bad effects on our physical and emotional health. When our breathing is deeper, however–when it involves in an appropriate way not only the respiratory muscles of the chest but also the belly, lower ribcage, and lower, middle and upper back–our breathing normally slows down. This slower, deeper breathing, combined with the rhythmical pumping of our diaphragm, abdomen, and belly, helps turn on our parasympathetic nervous system–our “relaxation response.” Such breathing helps to harmonize our nervous system and reduce the amount of stress in our lives. And this, of course, has a positive impact on our overall health.

The key to deep breathing is to begin to learn to sense unnecessary tension in our bodies and to learn how to release this tension. Then, when the body needs to breathe deeply for the task at hand, it will be able to do so. Releasing unnecessary tension requires great inner attention and awareness. It requires learning the art of self-sensing and self-observation. A beneficial work with deep breathing begins with increasing our internal awareness. Without sufficient awareness, without great sensitivity to what is happening inside our bodies, any efforts to change our breathing will at best have no effect whatsoever (we’ll quickly stop our breathing exercises), and at worst will create more tension and stress in our lives and thus undermine our health and well-being even further.

Another important aspect of deep breathing, one that is frequently overlooked, has to do with the strength of the diaphragm and its coordination with the secondary breathing muscles. When we were young, unless we were very quiet and sedentary (which, by the way is becoming more and more common as children watch more and more television), we kept our diaphragm strong and coordinated through constant hollering, screaming, shouting, singing, running, jumping, twisting, playing, and so on. As adults, however, the most intense exercise many of us give our diaphragm is talking. As a result, a diaphragm that was designed to be able to move comfortably five to six inches through the vertical direction, today often moves comfortably just one to three inches. Combine this with the chronic tension and poor posture that so many of us experience in our lives, and our diaphragm often becomes misshapen and smaller than it should be. All of this contributes to the fast shallow breathing we see in so many people.

If you want a stronger and better coordinated diaphragm, the solution is simple. Begin humming, toning, chanting and singing on a regular basis, being sure not to let yourself become breathless as you do so, and start a program of tai chi, qigong (chi kung), classical yoga, and other movement disciplines that bring flexibility and deep relaxation. (I talk about this in depth in my book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life.)

In general, many of us have poor breathing habits, including the way in which we attempt to do so-called deep breathing exercises, and we don’t know it. This is tragic. Research has shown that our health and longevity are closely associated with the health of our lungs and the way we breathe. In short, poor breathing often results in more health problems and a shorter life.

How can you tell if you might have breathing problems? One way is to notice whether you hold your breath a lot, breathe more than 10 breaths a minute while at rest, find yourself frequently out of breath, have little belly and lower rib movement and a lot of chest movement when you are breathing at rest, or suck in your belly and raise your shoulders when trying to take a deep breath. Another, more comprehensive, way is to take the free breathing tests developed by Mike White. He offers two tests: a 5-minute test and a 15-minute test.

Copyright 2012-15 by Dennis Lewis

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