By JiJi Russell
Sports & Fitness Network, Contributor
As a long-time teacher and practicioner of yoga, I strongly advocate the practice of deep breathing. It’s a practice, like many in the healing arts, that might be “simple” at its core — it does not require any special equipment or location; it can be done by anyone anywhere, regardless of physical condition; it requires no financial comittment. But though a simple practice, deep breathing, with awareness, may not be “easy” to pull off consistently. How many times a day to you find yourself tensing up and holding your breath? Or, perhaps the better question would be: How many times a day do you even notice your breath?
The benefits of deep breathing cannot be overestimated. It is a biological fact that the deeper you breathe, the more oxygen you deliver to your cells and thereby your organs. At the same time, a deep exhalation allows the release of more carbon dioxide (a waste product) from your body. The effects of these two simple actions (more oxygen in; more carbon dioxide out) travels far and deep within the human body. Among the key benefits of deep breathing are the following:
- Relief from chronic pain – because of the release of endorphins relative to deep breathing
- Increased energy level – because of an increase of oxygen delivered to the brain cells
- Reduction in blood pressure – deep breathing takes some of the burden off the heart to deliver oxygen to the body, as the lungs “pull their weight.” This shift can help lower blood pressure.
- Better circulation in your vital organs – due to the physical movement of proper diaphragmatic breathing
- Decreased anxiety – due to many of the above boons of deep breathing, somehow things seem easier when processed with a deep breath.
…but don’t just take my word for it. Try to schedule a few five-minute “breathing breaks” for yourself throughout the day, and see how you feel. (See instructions below.) One particularly good time to practice a deep breath is at the very moment when you feel yourself encountering stress. Before you talk or act, take a deep breath. See if your words or actions become a little less “charged” this way. You might just surprise yourself.
Give it a Spin: Deep Breathing Technique*
also known as the yogic breath, full breath, three-part breath, or in the Yoga tradition: “dirgha pranayama”
- Come to a comfortable seated position with your spine erect, or lie down on your back.
- Begin taking longs, slow, deep breaths through the nostrils.
- Focus first on filling the lowest chamber of the lungs so that as you inhale, your belly gently puffs out, and as you exhale, your belly deflates and drops back toward your spine. Work on this portion of the technique for as long as it takes to feel comfortable breathing “into the belly” this way. It may seem contradictory to your usual breathing pattern and might take some practice to master.
- Once Step 3 becomes easy for you, expand your awareness of the inhalation into all three chambers of the lungs, first the abdominal region, then the thoracic region, then the clavicular region. Feel each chamber expanding as much as possible as the breath flows through the lower, middle, and upper regions of the lungs in a wave-like motion.
- As you exhale, allow the breath to flow out of the lungs like a balloon deflating, in the most relaxed and natural way possible. Just before the end of the exhalation, contract the abdominal muscles, squeezing the residual air out of the lungs so they empty completely.
- Continue taking several deep breaths in this way, keeping your body totally relaxed without inducing strain. Let the breaths be smooth, even, and uninterrupted.
*This explanation of the “dirgha pranayama” was adapted from a training manual written by the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship. A list of Kripalu articles, for further research and information, is available here: http://kripalu.org/article/284