I almost always suggest to clients that they learn focused abdominal breathing and practice a minimum of 5 minutes every day; for the best results, I recommend they practice 20 or more minutes per day. Sometimes they look at me funny and ask “You mean all I have to do is just breathe and everything will be better?” I tell them that no, everything is not going to magically change to exactly what you want in life, but learning and practicing focused abdominal breathing every day WILL do this for you:
1) Special breathing techniques can help reduce physical pain. Often when people are in pain, they breathe in a very shallow, disordered pattern. They also may frequently hold their breath without even realizing it. These are mostly unconscious protective reactions to pain, but they can actually increase the level of pain. Several recent scientific studies have shown that breathing at a slower rate from the diaphragm can significantly reduce sensations of pain.
2) Breathing helps to properly balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. Breathing properly from the diaphragm will:
• Fuel energy production
• Improve focus and concentration
• Increase relaxation and calmness
• Reduce tension and anxiety
• Eliminate toxins
• Strengthen the immune system
• Improve bowel function
• Lower blood pressure
• Increase metabolism, aiding in digestion and weight loss
On the other hand, not breathing correctly can cause problems for a number of systems in the body, including the immune, circulatory, endocrine, and nervous systems. Improper breathing can produce various symptoms including:
• Difficulty focusing attention
• Chest pain
• Digestive problems
• Irritable bowel
• Neck and shoulder pain
3) Breathing releases emotional energy that is trapped in the body. People with anxiety and/or depression are almost always (and I mean 99.9% of the time) either breathing very shallowly or frequently holding their breath. Holding the breath is one of the most common ways that people stop emotions from coming up (think about the last time you tried not to cry, feel afraid, or get angry). Once you hold in an emotion it stays trapped in your body, until you release it. Breathing allows stifled, buried emotions to finally start to surface and be released.
4) Breathing keeps you in the present moment, instead of the past or the future. People with depression are often stuck in thoughts about the past, and people with anxiety are stuck in thoughts about the future. When you’re concentrating on your breathing, you are paying attention to your body sensations, the sound of your breath, and the process of breathing, all of which are happening RIGHT NOW. When you’re paying full attention to RIGHT NOW, you take AWAY energy and attention from the thoughts about the past or future. When you bring your attention to NOW, you automatically feel calmer.
Using the breath is a way to learn how the body and mind are connected. This is why I teach proper breathing to clients. Thoughts are directly related to feelings in the body and likewise, body sensations give rise to thought patterns in the mind. Mind and body are in a constant dance of influence, and it is important for people to learn that they have more choice and control in the matter than they thought.
Basic Instructions for Focused Abdominal Breathing
More than likely, if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or pain, you are breathing shallowly from your upper chest. You want to train yourself to breath from your diaphragm/abdomen. Although it’s most effective to have someone teach you the process in person, here are the basic steps:
1) Sit in a comfortable upright position with your back against your chair and your feet on the ground. Keep your back straight, but let your shoulders and the rest or your body be very relaxed.
2) Place your left hand on your abdomen. Imagine that the entire area from your lower abdomen up to your chest is one large, rectangular balloon. Now, start by exhaling as completely as possible. Empty out as much air as possible. Your left hand will move inwards as the “balloon” area deflates. Now, slowly and gently, inhale, imagining that you are filling the balloon starting from the bottom, all the way up to the top. When you are breathing correctly from your abdomen, your lower abdomen will inflate, followed by your chest expanding, and your left hand will be pushed outward. Your shoulders will not go up, they will stay in place. When you inhaled did your hand move? Or did your shoulders go up instead? If your shoulders rise up when you inhale, you are breathing from your upper chest. Exhale and try again. This type of breathing may take a little practice to get the flow going. Work on this step until you can fill and empty the “balloon” completely. Then add the next steps.
3) Now that you are breathing abdominally, relax into a natural breathing rate. Your body will take over the breathing and settle into its own rate and depth. Your job is to just observe your breathing. Focus your attention on the tip of your nose and intently notice the pressure, temperature, and sensations of the air passing in and out of your nose. If it helps you to focus, you may also silently say “breathing in” on your inhalation and “breathing out” on your exhalation. Do this focusing for 5 minutes a day to start with, and work up to 20 minutes or more per day.
4) During your focused breathing session, especially when you first start practicing, you will more than likely notice that you are thinking about something else other than breathing. Thoughts have intruded into your mind and distracted your attention. When this happens, try not to react with any emotion (such as frustration). Just gently and silently allow the thoughts to drift upwards far away in to the sky like a soap bubble and then turn your attention back to your breath. At first you will find yourself re-directing your attention many, many times each session. Over time you’ll be able to maintain focus on your breathing for longer and longer periods of time and it will get easier to let go of intruding thoughts. It will even become easier to let go of unhelpful thoughts you have during the rest of the day (such as disturbing thoughts of the past or worrisome thoughts of the future). The most important thing is to keep doing the focused breathing every day, no matter what.
Open, full, unrestricted, unobstructed breathing is very important for your physical, mental and emotional health. It is something simple that can make a very big difference in your life. There are many things in life that we have no control of, so doesn’t it make sense to do the things we can have some control over? You can actively affect your own physiology and mental/emotional state just by mastering the art of breathing, focusing, and being present.
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