Good breathing is the hidden health secret – a sure-fire way to improve your well-being, freshen up your looks and boost your mood. While we all know how to breathe, few of us use our breath to its full potential. “Breathing affects all the body systems,” says Dr Andrew Stanway, author of The New Natural Family Doctor (Gaia), “Good breathing can cure stress-related ailments, depression and fatigue, reduce the ill-effects of respiratory diseases and enhance well-being and vitality. Since breathing can be consciously controlled, it is a key area of self-help for all-round good health.” It’s a great beauty tool too, says chartered physiotherapist Sammy Margo, “You look better because you get rid of waste more effectively.”
The idea of controlling the body and psyche through the breath is not new. Pranayama, the yogic art of good breathing, has been around for more than 5,000 years while the deep breathing of the Chinese system of qi gong is equally venerable. Now science is proving that the ancient gurus had it right all along. For example, research reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience indicates that the breathing techniques of pranayama can affect a huge range of bodily responses, from cardiovascular activity through hormone balance to shifts in the nervous system.
Good breathing is a key part of the Alexander Technique while the Buteyko Method promises to banish asthma through controlled breathing. Voice coaches swear that controlling your breathing will improve your communication skills and your career prospects. Even physiotherapists and psychologists are teaching the art of conscious breathing.
On a symbolic level, breathing is all about how we tackle life. There is a yoga proverb that says: “Life is in the breath. Therefore he who only half breathes, half lives.” So breathe deeply and live life to the full.
BREATHING TO BOOST YOUR BODY
Breathing is the way we pull in oxygen and circulate it around the body to “feed” our cells; it is also the way we send out carbon dioxide and waste products, “cleaning out” each and every cell. However it’s not a case of oxygen = good and carbon dioxide = bad. The two gases need to remain in careful balance for optimum health. Sadly few GPs will send you for breath training, which is unfortunate as good breathing has a host of health benefits:
• Increased resistance to colds and illness
• Clearer, brighter skin
• Lowered heart rate and metabolic rate
• Normalised blood pressure
• Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease
• Increased life expectancy
• Control of medical conditions such as asthma, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, heartburn, respiratory diseases, PMS.
BREATHING TO SOOTHE YOUR BRAIN
“The ancient practitioners of yoga were probably the first to discover the close relationship between breathing and mental states,” explains yoga teacher Stella Weller, author of The Breath Book (Thorsons), “Today breathing is commonly used as a therapeutic tool to reduce stress and bring about a state of calm and a sense of self-control.”
Breathing techniques can help:
• Anxiety and depression
• Panic attacks
• Stress, inability to relax
• Anger, sadness, resentment
PRANAYAMA – THE BREATH OF LIFE
Yoga has a whole science devoted to breathing – it’s called pranayama and it offers a breath for virtually every condition and emotion under the sun. Try this for starters.
The Sniffing Breath
Stella Weller recommends this for anyone whose chest is tight, preventing deep breathing. “Also practice it any time you feel under pressure, to help you to relax and remain controlled,” she says.
1. Sit upright, relax your jaw and breathe regularly.
2. Take two, three or more quick inward sniffs (you’re breaking up your inhalation into small parts).
3. Exhale slowly and steadily through either your nose or pursed lips.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 several times, until you feel your chest relaxing. Then take one deep inward breath without straining.
5. Resume normal breathing.
QI GONG – CHINESE GOOD BREATHING
Qi gong is an ancient mind-body exercise system whose effects have been rigorously tested in its homeland China. Qi gong breathing has cured patients of tuberculosis and experiments have shown that qi gong exercises can noticeably increase lung capacity while letting brain-waves drop into the theta level, allowing the patients to stay alert yet deeply calm.
The Abdominal Breath
1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent. Relax your shoulders. Imagine a string runs from the top of your head to the ceiling, holding you upright but not rigid. Place your hands gently over your stomach, just below your navel.
2. Take in a slow steady breath through your nose, allowing your abdomen to swell out like a balloon as you breathe. Hold the breath gently.
3. Then exhale, allowing the breath to come out slowly through your mouth as the stomach subsides.
This form of breathing sends qi (vital energy), right around the body. If you find it hard, try lying down and placing a bean bag on your abdomen – concentrate on making it move. As you become more proficient imagine health-giving energy flooding into your lungs as you breathe in and stale, spent energy pouring out as you exhale. Regular practice is said to improve, not only your health, but also your beauty!
“If we use our body incorrectly we can make the effortless act of breathing hard work,” says Alexander Technique teacher Richard Brennan. Alexander Technique teaches that good breathing is a natural state with which we unconsciously interfere through poor posture and muscular tension. Students are taught to return their bodies to perfect poise and, generally good breathing returns. This technique can also help…
The Whispered “Ah”
1. Notice where your tongue is and let it rest on the floor of your mouth, the tip lightly touching your lower front teeth.
2. Think of something that makes you smile (this ensures your lips and facial muscles are not tense).
3. Gently and without straining, let your lower jaw drop so your mouth is open. Ensure your head doesn’t tilt back.
4. Whisper an “ah” sound until you come to the natural end of the breath. Don’t rush it and don’t extend it too long.
5. Gently close our lips and allow the air to come in through your nose and fill up your lungs. Be aware of your breath as it travels through your nose, down your throat and into your lungs.
6. Repeat several times.
Buteyko (pronounced Bu-tay-ko) is a system of breathing exercises and lifestyle advice pioneered by Russian doctor Professor Konstantin Buteyko and famous for its effects on asthma. The method is treated with scepticism by the medical profession but independent Australian research found a 90 percent decrease in the use of asthma medication needed and a 71 percent improvement in symptoms.
Buteyko believes that asthma (and many other conditions) is caused by overbreathing (hyperventilation), which upsets the delicate balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Buteyko is taught in a course of 5 x 90-minute sessions. Integrated health expert Dr Rajendra Sharma considers the method helpful but does sound a note of caution: “Buteyko teachers have, in my opinion, been overzealous in suggesting that patients “throw away their crutches” (including stopping prescribed medication) sooner rather than later. It is best to follow a Buteyko method under the guidance of an independent physician or complementary medical practitioner.”
So how do we go wrong with our breathing? Sammy Margo and Stella Weller explain the most common breath crimes:
• Slumping – reduces lung capacity and compresses the lungs.
• Pulling back your head and sticking out your chin when speaking – tenses the throat and restricts the flow of breath.
• Not getting enough exercise. Ideally you should be exercising 3-4 times a week, for 20-30 minutes at 60-80 percent of your maximum heart rate.
• Slouching – narrows the chest cavity, restricting breathing.
• Tension and rigidity (in both the chest muscles and the entire body) – if your body is stiff and tense you cannot breathe fully.
• Overbreathing or hyperventilation – creates too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide and causes imbalance in a host of body systems.
BREATHE YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS
People judge us, not only on how we look but also on how we speak – good breathing is essential for a strong, persuasive voice. “Your voice is like your own personal PR agent,” says Stella Weller, “and the key lies in attentive, controlled breathing.”
Try this technique, called Straw Breathing, to strengthen your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, and to help you master control of your exhalation.
1. Sit comfortably upright, ensuring your body is relaxed (check your jaw and facial muscles in particular).
2. Place a drinking straw between your lips (don’t tense your lips and keep your face relaxed). Hold the straw securely but without tension in your hands.
3. Inhale through your nose, slowly smoothly and as deeply as you can without straining.
4. Exhale through the straw, as smoothly and slowly as you can without strain.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as many times in succession as you can.
6. Resume regular breathing.
This feature first appeared in Woman & Home magazine