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The Art of Deep Breathing (and why it's so important!)

Breathing is a miraculous thing. In some cultures it’s believed that it is the essence of being. It is the only process in the body that is under both voluntary and involuntary control. This means that through simple exercises we can have a profound effect on how we feel, our body’s physiology and our general health.

Our breathing is intimately connected to how our nervous system functions.

The sympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as our “fight or flight response”, and is designed to protect us in life threatening situations. You can tell when you have activated your fight or flight response as you will have an increased heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, and tense muscles.

These are appropriate responses in extreme circumstances, but our modern lifestyle can lead to a chronic over-stimulation of this fight or flight response as we deal with constant daily emotional stresses (traffic stress, relationship stress, time stress, money stress ….. you get the picture!). This in turn can lead to a range of physical symptoms including fatigue, tight and painful muscles, heart palpitations, anxiety and high blood pressure.

The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with relaxation, digestion and a well-functioning immune system. When we EXHALE our parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated. This means that deep breathing is a fantastic way to mitigate our stress, and bring the body back into balance. The following exercise will help to do just that….

This exercise should be done twice a day or whenever you find your mind dwelling on upsetting thoughts or when you are experiencing pain.

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on the abdomen should rise more than the one on the chest. This ensures that the diaphragm is pulling air into the bases of the lungs.
  • Take a deep breath in through your nose for the count of 4.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely evacuate the remaining air from the lungs. (It is important to remember that we deepen respirations not by inhaling more air but through completely exhaling it.)
  • Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breaths and try to breathe at a rate of one breath every 10 seconds (or 6 breaths per minute).

In general, exhalation should be twice as long as inhalation. Placing your hands on your chest and abdomen are only needed to help you train your breathing and are not necessary when you feel comfortable with the exercise. Remember that learning to breathe properly is like training at the gym, it takes regular practice and time. Happy breathing!

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