Health & Wellness

Breathing Your Way to Better Health

By MSF Staff and reviewed by Multiple Sclerosis Foundation Medical Advisory Board

"I hear & I forget. I see & I remember. I do & I understand." ~ Chinese proverb

Breath is life. Life is breath. The yoga sages of India have embraced this indelible link for centuries, where conscious breathing has long been an integral part of daily life. There is even a mantra-like rhythm in the phrase itself: Breath is life. Life is breath.

Western researchers, steeped in modern thought and culture, are slowly beginning to acknowledge the importance of the breath. As data continues to accumulate, they are beginning to admit that perhaps the breath is more than just a lot of hot air.

"Since we are not educated to become conscious of this fundamental metabolic process, over 90 percent of us are using less than 50 percent of our breathing capacity," said David Thorpe, transformational breathing facilitator and alternative health and spiritual researcher. This poor breathing can lead to a low energy level, high stress and toxicity levels, and a stagnant emotional state. When done properly on the other hand, breathing can have a tremendous effect on your health -- mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Shallow breathing

Breathing is a metaphor for life. Inhalation represents receptiveness to new experiences, while exhalation represents the letting go of old ones. As our lives have become busier, more shallow and superficial, so has our breathing. Perhaps it isn't too surprising, then, that we have become a society of superficial or shallow breathers.

The trouble with shallow breathing is that it does not provide sufficient oxygen to our brain or other cells within our bodies. Insufficient oxygen in the tissues, or hypoxia, has been linked with degenerative disease. According to the International Breath Institute in Colorado, "Full breathing is a natural and powerful detoxifier since 70 percent of the body's many toxins are released through exhalation."

It stands to reason, then, that when our oxygen level is depleted, our body's ability to detoxify itself is depleted as well. This increases our susceptibility to illness and disease. Shallow, rushed breathing aggravates stress, asthma, fatigue, insomnia, and many other ailments. Shallow breathing fails to produce the natural undulating flow of our internal organs and fluids that is inherently produced with deeper, more natural breathing.

Howard Kent, founder of the Yoga for Health organization and author of the book Yoga Made Easy*, states that, "One of the most common problems in our society is shallow breathing. The process that we call hyperventilation can be a response to many challenges: emotional, environmental, and physical. As a result of these challenges, there is a tendency to take small breaths -- a sign of unease with life -- using only a small upper part of the lungs."

The International Breath Institute confirms Kent's findings, concluding that shallow breathing, a condition of the vast majority of people, has been linked to a battery of physical and emotional disorders, and psychosomatic symptoms.

Emotions and breath

Emotions and breath are also indelibly linked. Did you ever notice that breathing is more labored when you are afraid? That anger produces a rapid, panting breath? Pain can interrupt the breathing process altogether, causing you to forget to breathe each time the pain returns. Undoubtedly, emotions often thwart the natural flow of breathing, which in turn diminishes your energy.

Taking in more oxygen is important. However, it may not be as important, as its effective distribution. This is optimally achieved when we are serene and peaceful. During meditation, for example, circulation within the muscles is increased by up to 300 percent! Relaxation simply enables us to breathe more effectively. Likewise, breathing more effectively enables us to relax.

Catch the wave

Once upon a time, before we were tainted by the stress and strain of life, we all naturally practiced diaphragmatic and abdominal breathing. This is not a new concept but an old, forgotten habit.

When we breathe fully and deeply, the diaphragm goes down during inhalation and up during exhalation. The more the diaphragm moves, the more our lungs expand. This, in turn, produces a gentle, wave-like motion that naturally stimulates and detoxifies our inner organs.

To grasp this concept more fully, visualize your diaphragm. It is a dome-shaped wall that not only helps you breathe, but also serves as a built-in divider between your heart and lungs on one side, and your stomach, spleen, pancreas, liver, kidneys, bladder and intestines on the other. The top of the diaphragm supports your heart and the bottom attaches around your lower ribs and lower-lumbar vertebrae.

Incorporating change

Now that you are aware of the benefits of breathing deeply and consciously, it is time to incorporate that knowledge into your daily life. There are many different paths to choose from.

You can teach yourself to breath deeply. Perseverance is necessary for this slow and subtle learning process. Don't get discouraged or feel as though you aren't doing anything. In the beginning, natural breathing may feel anything but natural to you.

It is helpful to begin by lying on your back, and placing your hand or a book on your abdomen. Always breathe through your nose, which is equipped with a built-in filtering system that cleans and warms the air before it enters your lungs. Never strain or practice to exhaustion. If your hands are clenched or your knuckles white, you're too tense. This is self-defeating. It is important to work within your own comfortable limits and stop if you experience any pain, especially in your chest or side. Practice on an empty stomach, in a well-ventilated room or outside. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, evenly, steadily, and deeply. Feel your abdomen expand on the inhalation and retract on the exhalation. Once you've caught the wave of deep breathing, sit erect and begin deep breathing in the vertical position.

Yoga, the Sanskrit word for union, allows you to unite body, mind and spirit into a balanced whole. Yoga combines poses, (asanas in Sanskrit) deep breathing, and relaxation. Many people experience an energy boost soon after starting even the most basic yoga program. It is safe, effective and easily modified for those in wheelchairs. Hatha yoga, in particular, is designed for relaxing and releasing deep body tension, bringing balance to the nervous system and stimulating internal organ function. Breathing evenly, without strain, is a primary component of hatha yoga. You may wish to focus on breath control, called pranayama. Or a combination of pranayama, meditation, and the spiritual aspects of yoga could be more suited to your needs. Gentle Yoga*, by Lorna Bell, RN and Eudora Seyfer, offers a simple yet complete program for breathing, relaxing, strengthening and toning. Yoga Made Easy*, by Howard Kent is a big, bright book with lots of large pictures to guide you along in your asanas. As you progress along your journey, you will practice asanas appropriate to your body's therapeutic needs, while continually incorporating deeper, more beneficial breathing that will soon spill over into your daily life.

The Alexander Technique, founded by Frederick Alexander, is a re-education of the mind and body that enables you to discover a new, tension-free balance within your body. It can improve your freedom of movement and coordination. Students of this technique experience a freeing of the mind, a nurturing of the imagination and an opening of the voice. A gentle process of relaxation, motion and awareness, the Alexander Technique incorporates breath, mind and body. "Tension, general discomfort, and poor breathing are all signs of conflict within ourselves, between what we think and what we feel. The more we separate mind and body in everyday activities, the more we lose touch with ourselves," said Glynn McDonald in her book Complete Alexander Technique*, a Practical Guide for Health, Poise and Fitness

Alexander developed his "art of breathing" back in 1903. He outlined the health benefits inherent to proper breathing, such as healthier digestion, improved heart function and elimination of strain on the throat during breathing and speaking. Practiced by dancers and actors for over a century, the Alexander Technique permits you to release harmful tension within your body, while learning to speak, breath, sit, and move with the least amount of muscular effort.

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese system of slow and graceful motion that benefits body, mind and spirit. Literally translated, tai means big or great and chi means ultimate energy. Through gentle, yet powerful dance-like movement, Tai Chi stimulates a liberating flow of energy. Each movement is accompanied by instructions for breathing. Gradually, the deeper, more conscious breathing patterns presented will become natural to you.

"By practicing Tai Chi for just ten minutes a day, you can restore harmony to your body and find your own natural state of health. Your vital energies will be stronger, you will feel healthier and you will be less susceptible to illness," said Robert Parry, author of Tai Chi Made Easy*, a step-by-step guide to health and relaxation.

An asterisk (*) beside a book title signifies availability through the MSF Lending Library. Call 888-673-6287.

(Last reviewed 7/2009)