Few things are more crucial to overall health than proper breathing. Proper breathing is an especially powerful tool for lowering chronic stress response and unlocking your body’s natural healing power (by increasing parasympathetic activity). But unless you suffer from a breathing-related condition, you likely give little thought to the way you breathe and how it affects your health.
That’s about to change. Proper breathing is important for your health, energy levels and, more specifically, it can lower the chronic stress response* that will aid in overall body recovery. Let’s learn how to retrain your breathing habits to maximize all the health-boosting side benefits of proper breathing.
In order to control your breath, you must become aware of it. This is a pretty straightforward process. Simply take a moment, and notice how you are breathing. Once you become aware of your breath, you almost always start to change it. That’s OK; just keep breathing. Try to notice how it feels and where your breath is going.
Here are some things to look for.
Please perform the observations described above before you read on.
Based on your answers to these questions, you can get an idea of how you are breathing. You may have to do this a couple of times. We often dramatically change our normal breathing cycle when we think about it too much. Wait a few hours, and do the exercise again to see if your results are the same. We are constantly changing our breathing patterns, but everyone has a baseline they return to when relaxed. Use the points below to self assess your breathing habits.
Before going any further, we want to stress that we are dealing with how you breathe while resting. If you are exercising or being active, it is perfectly normal to use your ribs and your diaphragm to breathe. Breathing with your ribs is not always bad. In fact later on we’ll describe an exercise that strengthens both types of breathing and has huge benefits for people suffering from the chronic stress response. Focusing on the usage of your diaphragm to breathe (diaphragmatic breathing) while resting is simply a great tool to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system* and increase your breathing efficiency.
Hopefully after performing this breath-awareness exercise, you have a better idea of how you naturally breathe. It might be helpful to write down some notes on what you noticed. The goal of the exercises is to modify the way you breathe while resting. To track your progress, it is very helpful to have a benchmark to look back on.
The more often you are able to change your breath from rapid and shallow to slow and deep, the more quickly it will become a habit. This in turn will help the healing process and give you more energy!
The breathing exercises that you will be taught are simple and require very little time. They are so easy you can perform them while sitting on your couch.
The first exercise is designed to get you to relax and focus on exhaling slowly. Exhaling slowly is the real secret to stimulating the “healing and recovery” portion of your nervous system.
Before getting completely started, review the following preparation steps…
*Disclaimer: Breathing exercises can sometimes make you feel a bit light-headed. If you experience this—especially the first few times you perform this breathing exercise—don’t worry. However, if you do feel light-headed, stop the exercise and return to your normal breathing for a minute or two, then try the exercise again. After a few sessions, you should no longer experience this problem.
We will use simple counting to measure our inhale time, the pauses, and the exhale time.
Now, let’s begin!
For this exercise you are going to inhale deeply for four seconds. You will then hold this air in your lungs for seven seconds. Next you will slowly and steadily exhale for eight seconds (Weil 2005, 15). This will require you to exhale much more slowly than you inhale to avoid running out of breath before the seven seconds are up.
Note: To help you relax, you may close your eyes for this exercise.
Repeat this for a total of ten breaths.
If this seems nearly impossible for you initially, you can also reduce the counts to three counts for an inhale and six counts for an exhale until this becomes easy for you to perform.
How do you feel? Most people feel very relaxed after this simple exercise. That feeling of relaxation is accompanied by a boost in your immune system, an opening up of your vascular system, and a boost in cellular healing throughout the body. Even if you don’t feel any differently, you have just lowered your chronic stress.
This exercise can be done one or more times daily. The more you use this exercise the better. It usually requires a bit more peace and quiet than the next exercise (which can be done anywhere), but you should feel comfortable using it in almost any daily situation. It can also help stop a spike in your sympathetic nervous system, which is brought on by a stressful situation.
Each breathing cycle (a complete breath consists of an inhale and an exhale) doesn’t have to take ten seconds, but ten seconds should be your goal. Why ten seconds? Research has shown that reducing your number of breaths from the average of twelve to fifteen per minute to six breaths per minute has huge health benefits.
Taking only six (longer, deeper) breaths per minute can increase your total oxygen intake by around 15 percent and can boost your blood-oxygen saturation by around 7 percent (Lee and Campbell 2009, 95). So even if you achieve half of the benefits seen by the researchers of the ten-second breath, you will still see significant results and bring your blood oxygenation into the optimum healing range of 98–100 percent. Although a few percentage points may not seem like much, your oxygen-sensitive nerve cells (and all other cells) know the difference.
Of course you can’t just start taking six breaths per minute all of a sudden. It requires a bit of training. You will build up to this rate over the course of a few weeks. To start with, you can focus on six- or eight-second breaths. Before you know it, you’ll be down to six breaths per minute, helping to put your body’s blood oxygenation level into the optimum healing zone, and feeling very relaxed and energized.
Simply breathe in for the same number of counts as you exhale with a one-count pause when your lungs are full and also when they are empty (Lee and Campbell 2009, 52–3).
For example, you may want to start with breathing in for three seconds then exhaling for three seconds.
Inhale 1…2…3 Pause
Exhale 1…2…3 Pause
Inhale 1…2…3 Pause
Exhale 1…2…3 Pause
When this pace is comfortable and you do not experience any light-headedness, simply count to four for each inhale and exhale (eight-second breath). When eight-second breaths are comfortable, you can progress to ten-second breaths.
This exercise can be used anytime during the day. You should aim to practice it whenever you think about it (while waiting in lines, doing laundry, watching TV, driving, etc.). The more often you use it, the more often your blood oxygenation concentration will be in the optimum range.