There are many small steps we can take to improve our overall health. Some are obvious like eating healthier foods, exercising more, and drinking adequate amounts of water. However, others are not so obvious or often thought of at all, but can produce effects as profound as these other steps. One of these not-so-obvious methods is the simple (or is it?) act of breathing.
This is not new news.
Anyone who has studied yoga, meditation, martial arts, or any other mind-body-spirit practice is aware of the importance of deep breathing. We are told that when we feel stressed, taking a few deep breaths will help us calm down. When women are preparing to give birth, they are often taught specific ways of breathing. The reason? Breathing relaxes the mind and the body.
Although this fact has been known for thousands of years in some cultures, new research has emerged that indicates that deep, controlled breathing does more than just relax people: it can potentially help people manage and recover from chronic ailments, as well as prevent certain diseases. I had the good fortune of hearing Dr. Andrew Weil speak at an IIN conference earlier this month, and he provided lots of great information about this topic. He also taught us some simple breathing exercises that over time can drastically improve one’s health and wellbeing.
Why can’t we just reduce stress?
It seems almost too easy, doesn’t it? We have to breathe to live; but if it was really that simple then why do so many of us suffer from chronic disorders like digestive issues, migraines, insomnia, etc?
Most of these disorders are stress related, but try telling a person who has a lot of responsibilities either at home or at work or both that they just have to reduce their levels of stress. You’ll probably get laughed at, slapped, or a Maude Face (or all three). Face it: we are living in a tough economy. Many people are struggling to find jobs or keep the jobs they have (often with longer hours, less pay, and more duties…but hey at least they have jobs at all) in order to keep clothes on their backs, food in their families’ bellies, and roofs over their heads. These stressful conditions cannot be reduced or eliminated. Even in times of economic prosperity it is impossible to live without stress. Yet, by practicing controlled breathing exercises, we can reduce and neutralize the harmful effects stress has on the body.
How can breathing improve health?
Wisdom of the health benefits of breathing goes back to traditional yoga practice, and the act of pranayama, or yogic breathing. This is something I learned about during my Reiki training, and I can tell you from personal experience that it works. I employed this type of breathing method during contractions while I was delivering my children, and I could actually see on the monitor that the breathing had an effect on the contractions. I experienced less pain, less anxiety, less breathlessness, and more focus.
Breathing is one of the only body functions we have that is completely voluntary and completely involuntary. It is the connection between the conscious and unconscious mind.
The word “prana” means spirit, and according to Dr. Weil, in many cultures the words “spirit” and “breath” mean the same thing. By manipulating the breath, we can manipulate our brain chemistry by sending certain signals to the nervous system and increasing parasympathetic tone. Increasing your parasympathetic tone has known cardiovascular and neurological benefits.
Dr. Weil also noted that regulating the breath can regulate one’s emotional state since it is impossible to breathe slowly and deeply and still be upset or anxious. Practicing yogic deep breathing exercises during moments of stress or when experiencing cravings, pain, or other feelings of anxiety is a great way to deal with the effects of stressors on the mind, body, and spirit. The results will be subtle at first, but with repeated practice, dramatic effects can be seen.
Check out Dr. Weil’s breathing exercises.
They take almost no time at all, so they can be done quickly during stressful moments. I suggest putting a sticky note with the word “BREATHE” written on it on your dashboard so you remember to do your exercises at red lights or when stuck in traffic. You can also practice your breathing while you are on hold with the cable company or the bank and have been transferred to three different departments and are preparing to repeat the reason for your call for the fourth time. Another good time is if you are having an intense hunger pang or craving but there is no snack or water in sight. Do them more regularly like twice a day if you have a condition like insomnia or migraines.
Some of this may seem a little too new age or out there for some of you, but I encourage you to take a minute (or less) a couple times a day and try these exercises out. You may be surprised at how soon you feel better.
*Image 2 by Indian Yoga Association (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons