Ever wonder why your instructor tells you to breathe in deeply through your nose during class when really you just want to pant heavily through your mouth? The following article from Harvard Health Publications sheds some light on the importance of proper breathing.
Take a Deep Breath
Proper breathing goes by many names. You may have heard it
called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. When
you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs,
and you will notice that your lower belly rises. The ability to breathe so
deeply and powerfully is not limited to a select few. This skill is inborn but
often lies dormant. Reawakening it allows you to tap one of your body’s
strongest self-healing mechanisms.
Why does breathing deeply seem unnatural to many of us? One
reason may be that our culture often rewards us for stifling strong emotions.
Girls and women are expected to rein in anger. Boys and men are exhorted not to
cry. What happens when you hold back tears, stifle anger during a charged
confrontation, tiptoe through a fearful situation, or try to keep pain at bay?
Unconsciously, you hold your breath or breathe irregularly.
Body image affects breathing, too. A “washboard” stomach
considered so attractive in our culture encourages men and women to constrict
their stomach muscles. This adds to tension and anxiety, and gradually makes
shallow “chest breathing” feel normal.
The act of breathing engages the diaphragm, a strong sheet
of muscle that divides the chest from the abdomen. As you breathe in, the
diaphragm drops downward, pulling your lungs with it and pressing against
abdominal organs to make room for your lungs to expand as they fill with air.
As you breathe out, the diaphragm presses back upward against your lungs,
helping to expel carbon dioxide (see figure).
Shallow breathing hobbles the diaphragm’s range of motion.
The lowest portion of the lungs — which is where many small blood vessels
instrumental in carrying oxygen to cells reside — never gets a full share of
oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange —
that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide.
Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or
stabilize blood pressure.
Here’s how to take a deep, healing, diaphragmatic breath:
First steps. Find
a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Start by observing your breath.
First take a normal breath. Now try taking a slow, deep breath. The air coming
in through your nose should move downward into your lower belly. Let your
abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out through your mouth (or your nose, if that
feels more natural). Alternate normal and deep breaths several times. Pay
attention to how you feel when you inhale and exhale normally and when you
breathe deeply. Shallow breathing often feels tense and constricted, while deep
breathing produces relaxation.