Breathing In Good Health

Ancient cultures included breathing exercises as part of their daily health routines, as do many modern alternative medicine treatments. Every cell of our bodies is dependent upon oxygen to provide energy for life as well as to destroy viruses and bacteria through oxidation (burning). Cancer cannot thrive in an oxygen-rich environment.

Healthy, deep, diaphragmatic breathing is the best way to oxygenate your body and to expel carbon dioxide and toxins. Seventy percent of your body’s natural toxins are released during exhalation. Deep breathing not only allows more oxygen into the body, it also cleanses the body of waste.

Check your breathing pattern by lying flat on your back and relaxing. Place your hands on your belly and observe the movement here without making an effort to consciously change your breathing pattern. If there is little or no movement in the belly it means the diaphragm is not being used, which results in shallow breathing.

Gradually begin to experiment with deep breathing to increase your O2 uptake, then see how you feel using these exercises from both ancient and modern times.

The Yogi Complete Breath was introduced to the West in the early 1960’s by Yogi Ramacharaka. The instructions are to sit or stand during the exercise. Breathing through the nostrils, inhale at a steady pace, first filling in the lower part of the lungs down near the belly. Next, as you direct the air upwards, let the ribs expand, bringing air into the lower ribs, mid-breastbone and chest. The last area to be filled is the higher lung, protruding chest and upper ribs. The outbreath starts by slightly drawing in the abdomen that pushes air up to the highest part of the lungs. It can seem mechanical at first, but as you get accustomed to this breathing technique, let it become a continuous flow.

Chinese "chi kung" (qigong) and yogic "pranayama" are a series of ancient breathing practices that can help one feel energized and empowered. Take in the deepest breath you can and hold it for as long as is comfortable. Let the body relax as you hold your breath. Then naturally let go of the breath. Notice the alertness and maybe even a deep slower and fuller breath.

Alternate nostril breathing, a Kundalini Yoga technique as taught by Yogi Bhajan, energizes and calms the nervous system. It also creates whole brain functioning by balancing right and left hemispheres, and is both integrating and grounding. Use full relaxed, deep breaths for this exercise. Use the thumb of the right hand to close the right nostril and gently and fully inhale through the left nostril. Then close the left nostril with the index or ring finger and exhale through the right nostril. Now inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. Continue repeating, alternating nostrils after each inhalation.

Holistic doctor, Andrew Weil, MD, suggests the following three breathing exercises to his patients.

  1. Sit in a comfortable, upright position with feet on the floor and uncrossed legs. Use the ancient Yoga and qigong technique of placing the tip of your tongue just behind the top front teeth. Start by letting out a long breath through the mouth. Breathe in through the nose on a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of seven. Release the outbreath on a count of eight through the mouth. This seemingly simple technique is powerful. Start off with four cycles of this exercise twice a day. It not only oxygenates the body, but increases mindfulness.
  2. A result of shallow breathing can be the build up of carbon dioxide that makes one feel tired. This is often caused by the exhalation being too short. To balance the in and out breath, sit in a relaxed position and consciously take in a gentle deep breath, then exhale completely. With a little more effort at the end of the outbreath, squeeze out three quick, short breaths. You’ll feel your abdomen muscles working automatically. Inhale and repeat this for a few minutes or as long as is comfortable.
  3. Create a calming and energizing effect with rhythmic breathing. As you relax, gently direct the breath while repeating the following: "Deeper, quieter, slower, regular." After a few minutes, you will notice a profound relaxation.

Author Mark Hyman, MD, offers the ultra-simple Ultra Mind Solution with this relaxing awareness exercise. While sitting up in a comfortable position, close your eyes and let the abdomen relax. Breathe deep through the nose and into the belly to a count of five. Pause one second. Breathe out through the mouth on a count of five. Repeat for five cycles and notice how you feel.

For advanced breathwork, the connected or circular breath is best done lying down. Place your hands on your belly to encourage deep abdominal breathing, then connect your deep inhale and exhale without pauses between breaths. You may notice a warm tingling sensation in the hands, face or feet that may spread throughout the body. The tingling may intensify and cause cramping. Old injury sites within the body that have been oxygen-deprived for many years and have become repositories of unhealed emotion and pain and may be triggered by the rush of oxygen flooding the body, generating intense feelings of being out of control, release and eventually joy and deep relaxation. Healing techniques that use circular breathing to release deep emotional blocks such as rebirthing and holotropic breathwork require the presence of a trained therapist.

Mary Shaffer is a freelance writer and elder living self-sufficiently, sensibly and sustainably. Her approach to health care is self-care first and when help is needed search out more than one discipline. Mary can be reached at 413-339-4342.