Pause for a moment to observe your natural breath. Ask yourself the following:
1) Am I breathing through my nose?
Nose breathing filters the air, protecting the body from environmental pollution, dust, and airborne germs. It warms and moistens the air, protecting the respiratory passageways. If you breathe through the mouth, you’re susceptible to dry mouth, colds, and sore throats.
2) Is my belly expanding with each inhalation?
Breathing into the belly means that you are using the full capacity of your lungs. If your belly is not expanding and contracting, you are breathing shallowly into your chest. This means your internal organs will not be properly oxygenated and you might be creating unnecessary feelings of anxiety.
3) Am I breathing rhythmically?
The breath should be slow and rhythmic. Rhythmic breathing ensures that you’re expelling the metabolic waste products of metabolism and carbon dioxide. If you’re exhalations are shorter than your inhalations, you’re impairing the body’s ability to rid itself of these toxic wastes.
3) Are my shoulders open or hunched?
If your shoulders are hunched, your chest caves in and makes it difficult to breathe deeply.
Turning your attention to your breath for just a few moments gives you the opportunity to analyze your own breathing habits. If you’re breathing through your nose with open shoulders and can observe your belly rising and falling, you’re on the right track.
If not, you may have formed some very unhealthy breathing patterns. Just because we all breathe automatically and unconsciously does not mean that we all breathe correctly. The good news is that you can learn to undo bad breathing habits with simple awareness.
The breath has two very important main functions: it nourishes the body with oxygen, and it cleanses the body of gaseous and toxic wastes. We’re meant to breathe as babies do; the belly naturally rising and falling with each breath. However, adults often lose this form and breathe only into the chest. As a result not only is there strain on the lower back, but the internal organs are deprived of maximal oxygen. And without proper breath, the body is vulnerable to disease because it is slow or unable to expel toxic wastes.
On the level of the mind, breath and emotion are very much connected. Breathing rapidly and shallowly into the chest creates the feeling of anxiety; while slow, deep breathing creates the feeling of calm and peace. Taking control of the unconscious act of breathing bridges the gap between the conscious and unconscious mind, so that you can positively affect your emotions and mental well-being.
Yogis say that we are allotted a certain number of breaths in our life, and it’s when we take our last breath that we leave this human body. They carefully studied nature and observed how the breath applies to the animal kingdom. Elephants and tortoises breathe slowly and tend to live long lives, while birds and dogs breathe quickly and rapidly and have short life spans. The yogis realized that slow, deep breathing can increase the human lifespan. Science recognizes the same. Slow breathing encourages a strong and healthy heart, and a long life.
You can relearn to breathe properly by practicing a few minutes of Abdominal Breathing:
Sit on the ground or in a chair, close your eyes and breathe naturally.
Place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your chest.
Draw your shoulder blades together to open your shoulders. This relieves pressure on your abdomen and allows your diaphragm to move freely for deep breathing.
Take slow, deep breaths through your nose.
Breathe into your belly. You might imagine breathing from your navel. You should feel your right hand moving out with each inhalation, and towards you with each exhalation.
Focus on rhythmic breathing, with exhalations that are about the same length as inhalations.
Practice this for several minutes.
Abdominal breathing should be your natural and regular breath. It’s the most beneficial and efficient way to breathe. By making full use of the lungs it increases oxygenation of the blood and internal organs, improves circulation, and massages the liver, lungs, and stomach.
You can correct bad breathing habits both by practicing the Abdominal Breathing exercise above, and by bringing awareness to your breath several times throughout the day to make sure you’re breathing properly.
With time, abdominal breathing will become your natural, everyday breath. Once you correct bad habits and learn to breathe properly, you’ll begin to see improvement in your overall physical and mental wellbeing.
(This article was also published on elephant journal.)