By Stephanie Grant, LAc
Healthy breathing is perhaps the simplest, significant change we can make to improve our health. Deep, full, slow breathing teaches the body to be calm, improves mental clarity and focus, and nourishes our tissues.
In Chinese medicine, the breath supports the lung organ system, allowing us to feel inspired and full of life. The lungs are responsible for circulating our qi throughout the vessels, analogous to sending fresh oxygen throughout our blood stream. In Chinese medical theory, the clear-qi of the lungs combine with the food-qi absorbed from our gut to create upright-qi to power our bodies; oxygen and good nutrients from healthy food combine to repair our cells and strengthen our bodies.
Why Breathe Deeply?
1) Breathing is Detoxifying – We bring fresh oxygen from the air within on inhalation,and we release carbon dioxide and other impurities back into our environment on exhalation. The more voluminous the breath, the more oxygen in and the more CO 2 out, the better we feel. We also detoxify our minds when we breathe – bringing inspiration within and exhaling what is not useful.
2) Breathing is Relaxing – Full inhalations and slow exhalations have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are in the habit of stress breathing with shallow, infrequent inhalations or holding our breath, we signal to our bodies to engage the fight or flight stress response of sympathetic nervous. By consciously slowing and deepening our breath, we disengage the sympathetic tone and instead re-engage the oppositional rest and digest state of the parasympathetic nervous system. Through conscious, intentional deep breathing, we can actually decrease the release of stress hormones, lower our heart rate and blood pressure, and relax our muscles.
3) Proper Breathing Decreases Neck & Shoulder Pain – Stress breathing overworks the scalene muscles on the front of our neck and the pectoralis minor muscle on our upper chest. These two sets of muscles work together when we are stress-breathing to elevate and expand the upper portion of our ribcage; very necessary in situations when we must run away from a tiger! These muscles are not designed for repetitive use and get incredibly tight when overworked. Tight scalenes can cause neck pain, jaw pain, and headaches. Tight pectoralis minor makes our shoulders curl inwards to further decreasing our lungs’ volume, causing upper back and neck pain from improper postural alignment. These muscles can also cramp down on the brachial plexus, an intricate network of blood vessels and nerves which run from our necks down through our shoulders and into our hands. Decreased blood and nerve flow through the brachial plexus can lead to numbness, tingling, or pain in the fingers and hands.
4) Breathing Aids Digestion – Deep belly inhalations descend our diaphragm into the abdominal cavity, gently compressing the intestines. Full exhalations raise the diaphragm and release the pressure on the intestines allowing them to expand. This gentle massage helps to stimulate smooth muscle movement of the intestines, leading to better absorption of nutrients and transit of stools through the bowels. Also, as mentioned above, relaxed deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, responsible for efficient functioning of all digestive organs.
5) Breathing Helps Us Connect and Feel Grounded – In Chinese medical theory, the lungs are responsible for dispersing qi to our extremities and descending qi down to the other organs. The lungs are the uppermost organ located at the top of our chest cavity, and energy descends down from the top much like the rains fall to the earth from the clouds above. By opening our chest fully and taking in deep breaths, we bring fresh energy into our body and send it out to our hands and down to our feet; we connect the air above with the ground below, helping us to feel connected and grounded in the present time and to the world around us.
(Re)Learn to Breathe:
1. Inhale deeply and slowly into your belly, allowing your belly to expand outward and your diaphragm to drop gently.
2. Pause briefly at the bottom of your inhalation, but don’t hold your breath. Just take a quick moment to notice the sensation of having a full breath in your body.
3. Exhale your breath slowly and completely, gently allowing your belly button to come back towards your spine.
To retrain your body to breathe, practice taking 100 deep belly breaths each day. The breaths need not be consecutive – practice taking 20-30 deep breaths before bedtime to calm your mind for sleep, take 15 breaths on a walking-break during your work day, or take 10 breaths if you find yourself getting worked up during a stressful situation like the afternoon commute. Notice the times you find yourself breathing shallowly or holding your breath. Are you on the phone or computer? Are you thinking about a stressful situation? Has your digestion been sluggish recently? Are you feeling sad or down?
For bonus points with your breathing practice, take notice of the sensation of your inhale and your exhale. How does the fresh air entering your nostrils feel as it descends into your lungs? How does the exhale feel as the air flows through your limbs and out through your nose?
How do you feel after practicing breathing?