Six Ways to Inhale Energy and Exhale Stress
We daily draw an astounding 22,000 breaths, but because it’s an involuntary action we often take it for granted. When breathing becomes intentional, the accompanying energy, awareness and control dramatically improve our mental, physical and creative performances, according to Al Lee, co-author of Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time. That’s 22,000 opportunities to be healthier and wiser every single day.
Lee paints a picture of perfect breathing: “Watching a baby breathe, it looks like there’s a balloon in the stomach that inflates and then falls back down. This is belly breathing, and it’s pleasant, enjoyable and natural.” During inhalation, the diaphragm pulls down under the lungs, allowing them to expand with air and displace space in the abdominal region.
However, “Breathing can fall victim to the same movement dysfunction as any other skill, like running or walking,” says Nick Winkelman, director of movement education at EXOS, an elite athletic training facility in Phoenix, Arizona. He points to the common dysfunction of shallow “shoulder breathing”, characterized by the lifting of one’s shoulders with each sip of air. The primary culprit is sitting.
“Hunching over the laptop or sitting in the car binds up the abdominal region and reduces the possibility of expansion there, so the breath moves higher into the chest cavity,” explains Lee. Replacing shallow breathing with deep breathing can help lower blood pressure and boost the immune system, he says. That may shed light on why, “Deep-breathing techniques are key to achieving deeper states of prayer, meditation and contemplation in nearly every spiritual tradition, because focusing on breathing clarifies the mind,” he notes.
Lee’s Six-Second Breath is a simple prescription for stress that can be used anytime, anywhere. Relax the abdominal muscles and inhale for three seconds, breathing through the nose to “disinfect, filter, condition and moisturize the air before it reaches the lungs,” says Lee. “Visualize the breath filling the body like a bell, the flared bottom expanding completely around the waistline. Pause momentarily and then exhale through the nose or mouth for three seconds, gently contracting the abdomen to help expel the air. Practice whenever needed to ease stress or for five minutes daily to establish a slower, deeper breathing pattern.”
The yoga breath, ujjayi, or ocean-sounding breath, can be combined with the Six-Second Breath. It is achieved by slightly constricting the throat muscles and gently lifting the glottis so that a soothing hiss is produced when the breath is drawn in through the nose. Richard Brown, an integrative physician, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York’s Columbia University and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath, explains the benefits. “It creates resistance to air flow, triggering receptors deep within the lungs’ alveoli, which allows more oxygen to be delivered to the cells. It also stimulates the vagus nerve input to the brain, which promotes calmness and clear thinking.”
Target breathing, a technique derived from qigong, helps move the breath through pain. Inhale deeply into the belly, says Lee, and visualize the breath as a ball of energy, which upon exhaling, can flow to the place in the body needing attention or healing. A recent study published in the journal Pain Medicine found that deep, slow breathing, combined with relaxation, effectively diminishes pain. “The nervous system represents a physical or emotional trauma in an unregulated pattern of signals,” says Brown, “but the mind and breath can wash away and rewire that pattern.”
Brown recently published a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that found yoga breathing helpful in relieving depression and post-traumatic stress. Bhastrika, or bellows breath, is a mood-lifting technique that can help clear mental cobwebs associated with fatigue and depression. Inhale vigorously through the nose while raising the arms above the head, fingers extended, instructs Brown. Then forcefully exhale through the nose while pulling the elbows down next to the ribs, closing fingers gently. Avoid overdoing it; three rounds of 15 to 20 breaths is sufficient for healthy individuals.
Anxiety attacks often generate feelings of breathlessness, and fixating on each inadequate inhalation can reinforce it. Roy Sugarman, Ph.D., director of applied neuroscience at EXOS, created a technique, called 4-2-10 Breathing, that emphasizes an elongated exhalation. Inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold for two seconds and then slowly release the breath for 10 seconds. Lee advises that after several breaths, the brain will start to shift from reactive emotional thinking to rational problem solving.
“Concentrating on the breath makes it hard to think about the future or rummage around in the past,” says Lee. “It keeps you in the moment, intimately in touch with the mind, body and emotions.”
Lane Vail is a freelance writer in South Carolina. Connect at WriterLane.com.
An Athlete’s Advantage
by Lane Vail
“Many disciplines, from Eastern yoga and martial arts to performing arts and athletics, rely on breathing as the foundation for eliciting the most from the mind and the body,” says Al Lee. Effective breathing optimizes the delivery of air into the lungs and extraction of oxygen into the bloodstream, both critical for improving athletic efforts.
Moreover, deep breathing enhances and balances the autonomic nervous system, inducing a relaxed state of readiness, adds Nick Winkelman. When an athlete breathes into the belly, the shoulders remain relaxed, the spine neutral and the ribs positioned over the hips. “This is a great biomechanical position to move and make impact,” he says, adding that a shallower breather, with lifted shoulders and arched back, recovers oxygenation slower and makes one more vulnerable to injury.
For rhythmic sports like running, cycling and swimming, Winkelman recommends relaxing into the synchronization of breath and movement. “Relaxation allows muscles to work more naturally. Tension restricts muscles’ ability to shorten or lengthen, but relaxation allows them to release stored energy. Correct breathing is one of the most important mechanisms for athletes to unlock tension and relax.”
For sports that require striking a ball or exerting a kick or punch, like tennis, soccer, martial arts and golf, the athlete should inhale during the preparation state and momentarily hold the breath right before impact. “The exhalation happens during the transition, and upon impact the breath is held again, muscles are tensed up and force is delivered,” says Winkelman. The process is: “Breathe in, hold, release, hold.”