Stress relief, insomnia prevention, emotion control, improved attention, better exercise capacity, increased lung capacity and life span are just a few benefits of practicing breathing techniques.
And the good news: breathing exercises are free and don’t have to take a lot of time out of your day. It’s just about paying attention to your breathing. In this article, we share the background behind proper breathing and teach one simple exercise to try today, but stay tuned for other stress-relieving breathing techniques to learn in the second part!
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It’s not a new health trend
Both ancient China and Hinduism placed importance on a kind of energy or internal breath that flows through the body, and regarded respiration as its manifestation. The Chinese call this energy qi, and Hindus call it prana (one of the key concepts of yoga).
In the West, the Greek term pneuma and the Hebrew term rûah referred both to the breath and to the divine presence, while in Latin languages, spiritus is at the root of both “spirit” and “respiration.”
Pranayama yoga was the first to build a theory around respiratory control, holding that controlled breathing was (and still is) a way to increase longevity.
In the 1920s, a German psychiatrist developed “autogenic training” as a method of relaxation. The approach is based on slow and deep breathing.
In fact, every relaxation, calming or meditation technique relies on breathing – controlled breathing has been proven to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost the immune system.
Breathing and longevity
To breathe, the lungs, diaphragm, and intercostal muscles work together. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This increases the space in the chest cavity and allows the lungs to expand and fill with air. To exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, reducing the space in the chest cavity. This causes the lungs to let the air out.
How well your lungs function may predict how long you live – shows the results of a nearly 30-year follow-up of a study claiming that the greatest indicator of life span was lung capacity. Not diet, nor exercise or genetics like it was previously assumed.
Your lungs mature by the time you are about 20-25 years old. After the age of 35, your lung function declines gradually as you age. This can make breathing slightly more difficult as you get older. But you can do a lot to reverse these processes.
Breathwork induces stress resilience
There are two important components of your autonomic nervous system:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – responsible for “Fight or Flight”
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) – to “Rest and Digest”
Good breathing practices help stimulate the PSNS, which is beneficial for all your body functions.
Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. This can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.
Having stress resilience from a good breathwork practice, you can achieve the so-called sympathovagal balance, enhancing your body’s reactivity to all environmental (physical and mental) stressors. Don’t forget that many maladies, such as anxiety and depression, are aggravated or triggered by stress.
Controlled breathing may also affect the immune system
Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of healthy adults into two groups. One group was instructed to do two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises, while the other group was told to read a text of their choice for 20 minutes. Their saliva was tested at various intervals during the exercise. The researchers found that the breathing exercise group’s saliva had significantly lower levels of three cytokines that are associated with inflammation and stress.
One breathing exercise to try today: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing (also known as belly breathing) can help you use your diaphragm properly. Here is how to do it:
- Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent
- Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on the abdomen, below your rib cage to feel the movement of your diaphragm.
- Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand.
- Keep your other hand as still as possible.
- Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, with each expiratory breath taking about two to three times as long as each inhalation
Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down, you can try it while sitting in a chair. You can then practice the technique while performing your daily activities, ideally for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day. This technique slows down breathing, strengthens the diaphragm, protects the heart, massages the abdominal cavity, improves the oxygen supply of the cells, and helps the immune system function.
The evidence is clear that breathwork can help you relax, sleep, feel better and live longer while they are not complicated and cost nothing. Learning to breathe properly is like learning to speak the language of your nervous system and be engaged with your present moment.
Stay tuned for more easy-to-follow breathing exercises.
- Pulmonary function is a long-term predictor of mortality in the general population: 29-year follow-up of the Buffalo Health Study
- The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human
- Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva: a pilot randomized controlled trial