According to ancient texts, our breath is our source of life. An ancient Hindu saying states “He or she who half-breathes only half-lives.” (In Hindi: “Jho insaan thota sash leja thoda jeeyaygaa; jho inshaan poora sash lega poora jeeyagaa”). This shows us the importance of getting the most out of our lives by getting the most out of the quality of each breath.
When your breathing muscles around and below the ribs are fit and strong, you are able to process more oxygen with each breath. When this happens, you are able to do more of life’s daily tasks more efficiently without finding yourself out of breath. This breathing efficiency is called “VO2 max” in scientific terms; the higher your VO2 max number, the stronger you are in the upper chest and back part of your core for using oxygen for daily activities. Breathing exercises are commonly used for treatment of insomnia, panic disorders, migraines, chronic pains, etc. A balanced nervous system promotes overall well-being, including favorable sleeping patterns.
Granted, breathing for most of us isn’t something we think about on a daily basis, but stopping occasionally to think about the quality of the breaths we take can increase the quality of our lives. If you can think about your breath, you can increase its quality of inhalation and exhalation (length and depth). If you increase the quality, you can nourish the body with more oxygen. If you nourish the body with more oxygen, you assist and facilitate the many functions dependent on oxygen-like elimination of toxins, manufacture of ATP (energy in the body used for all work), and daily function of internal organs. Everything we do begins and ends with breathing. It’s the first thing we’ve done on the planet, and it will be the last thing we do, no matter how we leave.
There are about ten different breathing techniques, with even more variations within each of them. One of the most essential requires an understanding that the nose is on the face for the purpose of breathing, and the mouth is more naturally designed for communication and feeding. The nose is responsible for purifying and warming air before it reaches the lungs. Notice how babies and dogs breathe through their noses when they sleep, which shows us this natural state. As we age over time, we sometimes lose that ability to process our breathing via our noses due to accidents, surgeries, changes in health, and immune system strength, among other things.
Try This: To deepen a sense of awareness and relaxation of the breath, sit tall and place one hand over the chest and another on the belly area, over the belly button. Try to inhale deep and long through the nose, feeling the air fill under both hands. Perhaps you can count up to three as you inhale, counting up: “one, two, three.” Exhale now, and let the air leave your body via the nose, counting in reverse, “three, two, one.” Try to feel movement under both hands as the air leaves under them. Think of the action of filling a tall glass pitcher with lemonade, where your lungs are the pitcher. As you inhale, fill the bottom of the pitcher first (your diaphragm, deep belly area, and low chest) and then follow the movement up the torso as you fill your “pitcher” with air. Feel your lower hand expand and move first, filling with air, and then your top hand. When you exhale through the nose, think of pouring out the “lemonade” or air in the natural way it would leave the pitcher: from the top first, then from the middle, and then from the lower parts of the pitcher/lungs, in reverse order from your filling process. When you exhale, you feel the air leave under the top hand first, then from the lower hand.
Another technique for nose breathing helps you direct air to the back of your lungs, an often unused section.
Try This: Lay face up on the floor or a bed. Bend your knees to feel comfortable in the lower back area, with the feet placed as wide apart as your hips. Place your hands around your ribcage with your thumbs wrapped under you towards the floor, over your back ribs. As you inhale through the nose, feel your fingers expand as the muscles between your ribs and the ribs themselves expand with air. Try to feel that expansion against your thumbs in back of you as your back ribs expand. After a few minutes, turn over face down, and turn your head to one side to keep a neutral neck. Place your hands by your sides with your thumbs facing the floor, under you, and your fingers wrapped around your ribcage, towards the ceiling. With the exception of your thumbs, your fingers are on your low to mid- back. Relax any tension in your shoulders. As you inhale in this position, concentrate on feeling your back ribs expand now, more than you felt before when you were supine, or face up. Because the floor or bed is under you, it’s more difficult for the lungs to expand to the front and easier for them to expand towards the rear. Feel your body rise and fall as you breathe through the nose, and imagine that you are getting more oxygen to the back parts of the lungs.
After a few minutes, you may feel a renewed sense of awareness about your body because you’ve made breathing a conscious act, if only for a moment. Furthermore, you have awakened your sense of awareness about the ribs and lungs, and you have become more aware of directing air to the back of the body when breathing. Getting more air to the mind and muscles always is a good thing because this helps them function more efficiently and allows us to think, relax, digest, and even sleep better!
Guest post by Lawrence Biscontini, Mindful Movement Specialist, fitness expert, and Senior VIP Consultant for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and Power Music®.