Mind-Body-Mood Advisor: Why You Should Breathe Like a Baby

The way you breathe has a powerful effect on your health.

October 12, 2009

Inspiration: Breathe naturally for better health.

Imagine there was something as simple as breathing that could dramatically improve our nation’s health and well-being. Believe it or not, there is. The way you breathe powerfully affects every system in your body (cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, lymph, immune, digestive, and of course, respiratory). Through breath training, you can learn to change the way you breathe to take advantage of this. Diaphragmatic breathing is a healthier way to breathe, and it's easy to learn. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people suffering from conditions ranging from asthma and hypertension to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even chronic pain learn healthy breathing techniques, their symptoms improve.

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THE DETAILS: You may be wondering, why would anyone need to be trained to breathe? And yes, we do all start out as experts. If you watch a baby breathe, you will see the infant's belly rise and fall with each breath. And that's really all there is to diaphragmatic breathing: Full, natural breathing that engages the diaphragm, a thin sheet of muscle that lies below your lungs. Every time you breathe in, the diaphragm stretches downward, allowing your lungs to expand to their full capacity. And when you breathe out, the diaphragm contracts upward, decreasing lung volume. When the diaphragm is fully engaged in the act of breathing, the lungs can expand to twice the volume they have when a breath is taken without full use of the diaphragm. Slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing gives you a feeling of relaxed energy. And over time, this type of breathing provides an important long-term health benefit. It increases vital capacity, the maximum volume of air you can exhale from your lungs. Research shows that vital capacity is a strong predictor of cardiovascular health and longevity.

Unfortunately, most of us long ago stopped breathing the way we did when we were babies. Rather than diaphragmatic breathing, in which we breathe fully into our bellies, we tend to engage primarily in chest breathing, which relies on the muscles of the chest and shoulders to provide most of the power used to breathe. Compared to diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes called "belly breathing") chest breathing produces increased heart and breathing rates. It can make your neck and shoulder muscles tense, and activate your body’s stress response. These are reasons chest breathers seem more prone to experience anxiety and stress-related conditions like hypertension and headaches. The good news is that with a little training, you can learn—or relearn—a simple way of breathing that can transform your health and well-being for a lifetime.

Are you breathing right? Watch this video to find out.

At Canyon Ranch, our guests are amazed to find how quickly the technique of diaphragmatic breathing brings them into a state of balanced relaxation. Through breath training, they typically bring their breathing rate down from an initial 16 to 22 breaths per minute to a relaxed four to seven breaths per minute. With biofeedback instruments, I show them how their breathing can regulate their heart rate, adrenaline flow, muscle tension, and blood flow. The computerized measurements are a vivid demonstration, but they only confirm what our guests already feel: Their style of breathing powerfully transforms their physiology.

HOW TO DO IT: There are many types of breathing techniques that provide diverse benefits. Some heighten energy and alertness, stimulating various organs and bodily systems. Others have the opposite effect. Done slowly, the diaphragmatic breathing we've been discussing is an excellent technique for calming the nervous system and bringing about a comfortable feeling of relaxation. It has been shown to decrease blood pressure, improve sleep, and strengthen immune function. If you are willing to take the time to learn and practice regularly, belly breathing can significantly enhance your health and vitality, and instantly enable you to relieve stress and gain a relaxed sense of well-being.

Follow these steps to engage in slow, diaphragmatic breathing:

1: Sit comfortably in an upright chair. When you are first learning, it may be helpful to lie down on the floor or a bed, which makes it easier for your abdomen to expand and contract with each breath.

2: Rest your hand lightly on your abdomen, about one inch above your navel.

3: Begin by exhaling deeply and fully.

4: Inhale gently, expanding your belly as you do so. You should feel your belly expanding beneath your hand.

5: Exhale softly, contracting your belly as you do so, feeling it contract.

6: Now inhale slowly while counting four seconds.

7: Pause for a count of two seconds then exhale slowly for a count of four seconds.

8: Pause for a count of two seconds.

9: Repeat the breathing pattern: IN for 1, 2, 3, 4…PAUSE…. OUT for 1, 2, 3, 4…PAUSE.

That's it! Try it for five to 10 minutes, and then go about your daily activities. To start, take a little time every day—perhaps once in the morning and evening—to practice this technique. And anytime you would like to reduce tension and stress and enter into a calmer state of mind and body, shift into slow, abdominal breathing for a minute or two. You can do this anywhere—while waiting in line at the bank, while you are working on your computer, or while lying in bed at the beginning or end of a busy day. Eventually, breathing with your diaphragm, instead of your chest, will become as natural as…well, breathing.

To learn more: You can find out more about the extraordinary health benefits of breathing, and about other specific breathing techniques, in the following excellent books: Breathe In, Breathe Out, by Jeffrey Midgow and James Loehr, and Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, by Dennis Lewis.

If you have been a chest breather for a long time, it will take a bit of practice to before diaphragmatic breathing comes natural to you. Working with a yoga teacher or fitness instructor can also be useful. Once you become proficient, you’ll discover the power of full, effortless breathing that is always just a breath away.