Learning how to breathe

By CAROL KRUCOFF If you think you're an expert in breathing just because you've been doing it all your life, take this simple test:

Take a deep breath, then let it out. Now close your eyes and try it again, this time focusing on which part of your torso expands most on the inhalation: your chest or your belly?

If the answer is your chest, you're a "chest breather." And like most people, you're doing it wrong. You're also missing out on one of the simplest and most powerful techniques for enhancing your health and reducing stress -- the relaxed, abdominal breath.

A proper deep breath (also called deep diaphragmatic breathing or the yoga belly breath) is your body's own built-in relaxation mechanism. When you bring air down into the lower portion of the lungs, where oxygen exchange is most efficient, it triggers a cascade of calming physiologic changes: The heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind quiets down.

Grandma knew this when she told you to "take a deep breath and count to 10" whenever you're upset. The relaxed, abdominal breath is nature's own "anti-stress" medicine -- it's free, simple and right under your nose.

Yet surprisingly, few people in Western society know how to breathe correctly. Obviously everyone alive knows how to breathe. But experts in mind-body medicine say that most people in industrialized nations are shallow "chest breathers" who primarily use just the middle and upper portion of the lungs. Typically, this is because we've been taught to suck in our guts and puff out our chests, often in an effort to look slim.

Plus, we're bombarded with a constant barrage of stress, which causes muscles to tense and respiration rate to increase. This can result in a vicious cycle: We breathe shallowly because we're under stress, which makes the body feel as if it's not getting enough air, which -- in turn -- can prompt quicker, shallower breathing.

Sadly, few people -- other than musicians, singers, yoga practitioners and some athletes -- are even aware that the abdomen should expand on inhalation to provide the optimum amount of oxygen needed to nourish all the cells in your body. Yet yogis have known for thousands of years -- and modern studies confirm -- that breathing provides a powerful link between body and mind, uniting them and helping establish a state of physiologic calm.

Relaxation breathing can help relieve numerous stress-related disorders including chronic pain, PMS and anxiety, according to a growing body of research. As a result, it's increasingly being used to help people with a wide variety of ailments -- from patients with advanced cancer, to school children struggling with attention-deficit disorder, to menopausal women seeking to cool down hot flashes.

For example, at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., nurse clinician Jon Seskevich has taught "soft belly breathing" to most of the more than 23,000 patients he's worked with since he became a full-time stress management educator/consultant for the hospital in 1990. "People become empowered by these techniques," he says, "and they do better."

To learn breathing from a master, watch a sleeping baby. You'll see the belly go up and down, deeply and slowly. But because most people forget these breathing basics with age, here are step-by-step instructions:

1. Lie on your back and place a book on your belly. Relax your stomach muscles and inhale deeply so the book rises. When you exhale, the book should fall. You'll still be bringing air into your upper chest, but now you are also bringing air down into the lower portion of your lungs and expanding your entire chest cavity.

2. Sit up and place your right hand on your belly -- just below your navel -- and your left hand on your chest. Breathe deeply so that your right, "abdominal" hand rises and falls with your breath, while your left, "chest" hand stays relatively still. Now move your hands to your rib cage. On the inhalation, feel your ribs expand out to the side like an accordion. On the exhalation, feel them relax back. You're still bringing breath down to the lowest portion of the lungs, so your belly rises, but now you're also focusing on expanding the middle portion of your lungs.

3. Place a timer or clock with a second hand in clear view. Breathe in slowly, completely filling your lungs with breath, as the timer counts off five seconds. Then breathe out slowly to a count of five, completely emptying your lungs. Repeat several times. Or, instead of counting, recite a prayer or phrase in time with your breathing. For example, try this phrase, suggested by Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn: "Breathing in, I calm myself. Breathing out, I smile."

Perform relaxation breathing throughout the day, such as when you awaken and before you go to sleep, in any stressful situation, or anytime you hear a bell (phone, door or church) ring.

More "breathing lessons" are featured in our book, "Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise," www.healingmoves.com.

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