I can remember when I was a young boy, standing in a non-descript room with my father by my side and the doctor teaching me how to breathe better. During my early years I had severe asthma and I quickly learnt to appreciate an easy, satisfying breath.
Over the years I have noticed with my clients how many of us don’t breathe properly, as crazy or weird as that sounds. By not breathing properly, I mean one is shallow lung breathing, which is not following the body’s natural breathing rhythm, known as belly breathing.
Simply put, belly breathing is when our stomach expands when we breathe in and when we exhale our stomach gets ‘sucked in’. When we expand the stomach we pull our diaphragm down, allowing oxygen to reach the lower alveoli sacks in the lung. When we contract or suck our stomach in during exhale, we push the diaphragm up, ensuring all the air is squeezed out of the lungs.
In short, belly breathing allows us to maximise the body’s oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange.
The Natural Breathing Rhythm
However we can breathe poorly in the opposite direction i.e. stomach-in breath-in, stomach-out breath-out, and still feel comfortable with it, as I had when I was a child. We can also breathe by not using our belly at all. These are all in fact bad habits that we have fallen into that can be easily changed providing us tremendous benefits.
According to the University of Texas Counselling and Mental Health Centre, "Belly Breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximizing the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the 'Fight or Flight' response and triggering the body's normal relaxation response."
The breath is the source of life, reaffirming our interaction with the richness of life with each breath we take. When we deny ourselves this gift in fullness it is as if we are denying ourselves the full experience of life, as well as minimizing the body’s energizing process with each shallow lung breath.
Breath is so important and yet so basic we often overlook it. As it is the only body process we have conscious and sub-conscious control over, it is used as a tool for emotional healing and spiritual growth. Many meditation practises follow the breath as a concentration tool while yoga utilises the importance of a belly breath.
Indeed the power of breath should not be under estimated and Wim Hof has demonstrated that by using breathing exercises he could set the 2014 world record for sitting in ice for the longest recorded duration at 1 hour and 53min and is passionately encouraging people to breathe deeper to improve ones physical and emotional health.
“A Natural way to detox”
Breathing is also recognised as a very natural way for us to detox, both toxins and emotions can be released via the breath. Very often I will need to yawn in a healing session as I am releasing via my breaths the negative emotions I have helped to process for my client.
As belly breathing allows the diaphragm to extend to its full length, this gently revitalises the lower lung and stomach area and this supports the releasing of emotions. For this reason belly breathing is a key tool for clearing our emotions, included in such practises like Re-Birthing, Pilates and the Art of Living courses.
“Clear negative feelings”
As shallow breathing doesn't support us in dealing with our feelings, I have noticed that we are usually poor breathers when we are disconnected or are suppressing our feelings. It's as if we unconsciously know not to breathe more fully in fear of activating the feelings we are currently avoiding. Yet it is precisely by taking deeper breaths that can help us deal with our fears (and clear our emotions) for it has been well documented that belly breathing can reduce anxiety.
Perhaps one of the reasons why belly breathing can reduce anxiety is because when we breathe more fully we are more connected to our selves, that is, we are feeling our emotions more and thus more grounded in the body. In other words, by breathing more fully we are more at home in ourselves, giving rise to a greater sense of peace.
I like to make my clients aware of their shallow lung breathing precisely because belly breathing is such a transformative tool, and yet so natural and available to us at the same time.
If you’re not already belly breathing then I encourage you to remind yourself as often as possible to do so. It really is an easy habit to change as it is a natural rhythm of our bodies. And the more often you allow yourself bigger, deeper breaths via your belly, the healthier you will feel both physically and emotionally. Try it out for yourself.
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Published: Updated Sept. 2020