The Importance Of Breathing

Breathing; so often overlooked, but so very important. Not to be confused with respiration which is automatic, breathing is conscious and linked to emotions and action. Your body will do anything to bring in air, even at the cost of efficient movement. In yoga, it is used to find a balance between the body and the mind, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is the only thing we do both voluntarily and involuntary. Using our breath, we can influence the SNS, which regulates blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, digestion and many other body functions. When stimulated through emotional stress this system can illicit a number of physical responses: our heart rate rises, we perspire, our muscles tense and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. If this occurs over a long period of time this over stimulation leads to an imbalance that can effect our health resulting in inflammation, high blood pressure, muscle pain, etc. Conscious, slow breathing can be used to directly influence these changes by stimulating the PNS resulting in relaxation and reversal of the changes brought on with SNS stimulation. Our bodies naturally know how to do this and show us when we take a deep breath or sigh when stress is relieved.

During stress, rapid more shallow breathing is used, causing the chest to not expand as much as with slower deeper breaths. Chronic stress can lead to restriction of connective and muscular tissue in your chest resulting in decreased range of motion of the chest wall. Placing your hands, one on your chest and one on your abdomen, noticing which moves more with each breath is a great test. If the hand on your chest moves more, you are a chest breather. This type of breath is inefficient since the greatest amount of blood flow occurs in the lower lobes of the lungs; this area has limited expansion in chest breathers. This results in less oxygen transfer to the blood resulting in poor delivery of nutrients to the tissues.

Luckily, just like learning to ride a bike, you can train the body to improve it's breathing technique. Dr Joel Kahn, Clinical Professor of Medicine and Director of Cardiac Wellness recently posted this great article of the technique called 4-7-8. It is a breathing technique to really bring down stress as well as to use daily to re-train your body's breathing habits.
"The technique shifts the autonomic nervous system away from the sympathetic predominance (which makes our hearts race and our palms sweaty when we face a stressful situation) and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to shine.

Here's how you do it:
1. Sit up straight in a chair.
2. Place the tip of your tongue up against the roof of your mouth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process.
3. Breathe in silently through your nose to the slow count of 4.
4. Hold your breath to the count of 7.
5. Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making a slight audible sound.
6. Repeat the 4-7-8 cycle another three times, for a total of four breathing exercises."

The above technique is a great way to start training your body to breathe better. Try working this into your day, maybe once or twice, and slowly you should start to notice your breath becoming more relaxed even when not performing the exercise. In general, the exhalation should be twice as long as the inhalation and it's important to note that we can deepen respiration not by inhaling more but through exhaling completely.

It is also important to address your alignment in your body while breathing. One way people think to help their chest expand is to roll back their shoulders to open the front of their chest. As great of an idea this is, be sure you are not thrusting out your ribcage as well. Many people do this as it gives the illusion of greater movement of the shoulder girdle. However, with the ribs thrusted forward, the lower ribs near the spine become cramped and restricted causing tension and tender points. This leads to less expanse of the ribs which restricts the amount of oxygen entering the lower lungs. Full breathing is 360°; the ribs should be able to expand forward, out to the sides and behind you. Check out this article from Katy Bowman M.Sc. and Biomechanist, if you want to know more about rib thrusting (

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