–by Farah Merani–
Breathing is one of the most basic acts of existence, a vital part of life that we often forget we do because it’s so instinctive and automatic. You’ve been doing it since the second you were born, but chances are, by adulthood you’re probably doing it all wrong.
I recently came across a book by Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., called Breathe: 14 Days to Oxygenating, Recharging, and Fueling Your Body & Brain, in which she addresses the way most of us ‘under-breathe’ in a most dysfunctional way. “We’re all born knowing how to inhale and exhale correctly, but with today’s technology, hurried schedules, and everyday stress, most of us have lost that ability,” she says.
Regardless of how fit you are or how active your lifestyle is, improper breathing can make you feeling tired faster, whether you’re training for a half marathon or racing to catch the bus. Every single cell in your body, from the brain to the bowels, needs oxygen to function optimally and if you’re not getting enough of this fuel, fatigue sets in. It’s easy to see, then, the truth of Vranich’s comment, “You can have the heart and cardiovascular system of an elite athlete but the lungs and breathing muscles of a total couch potato.”
Lucky for us, retraining your respiratory system is one of the simplest and most enjoyable exercises you can do. The first step is paying attention to the muscles you use when you breathe, including the diaphragm, abdominals, obliques and intercostals. Just like any other muscle group, these need to be strong and flexible to work effectively. Once you get the hang of it and become more aware of how you breathe, your muscle memory will kick in and you’ll be breathing better in everything you do. Benefits include improved mental awareness, physical stamina, more energy, sounder sleep and greater stress management.
Try starting your day with these short exercises and witness the improvements within a few short days.
- Stretch it out. Sitting upright, raise your hands above your head and reach as far as you can. With every inhale raise yoor shoulders up as high as you can, lowering them on the exhale. Repeat this 6-8 times. Next bend over to one side and gently massage the intercostal muscles between the ribs, feeling how the breath fills the length of the lungs. Do this for 3-4 breaths on each side.
Count every breath. There are two parts ot every breath, the inhale and the exhale, and it’s important to pay equal attention to both. If you don’t exhale fully, you won’t release all the air from your lungs and your next inhale will be a ‘top-up’ instead of a full fill up. Count to 5 on the inhale, focusing on breathing deep into the lungs and expanding the diaphragm. Hold for 3 seconds and then exhale on a count of 5, going beyond what you think of as empty and really hollowing out your belly. By pushing out as much air as you can, you’re preparing your body for the next big intake and training your lungs to hold more air. Hold again for 3 counts. Start with 5 full breaths then and gradually increase as you are able to sustain more.
- Breath of Fire. In yoga, there is a very specific practice of breathing, which brings focus to the abdomen and the exhale. It’s like blowing out a series of candles, one after another. Audible exhalations are key to ensuring that your muscles are activated. You don’t need to think about the inhale as your body will do it naturally. Vranich suggests starting with 20 to 30 reps, eventually working your way up to 100.