If you've ever had an asthma attack or respiratory illness, you know what it feels like to breathe shallowly because you can't breathe more deeply. But even people who don't have these conditions may breath shallowly without realizing it. Shallow breathing contributes to tension, fatigue, high blood pressure, increased heart rate and poor digestion. Through deep breathing exercises, you can override your body's physiological responses to stress and illness and improve your energy and sense of well-being. There are many techniques for breathing deeply, but all improve the way you move air into and out of your lungs.
Shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen that your body receives. Oxygen is essential for proper function of your circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems, as well as your brain. It purifies your blood and supports energy metabolism. Deep breathing nourishes your body with sufficient oxygen and clears out excess carbon dioxide. This helps your organs function better and helps you relax and focus on the present.
When asked which part of the breathing cycle comes first, most people would say inhalation. However, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, exhalation actually comes first. You cannot fill your lungs with fresh air if you don't first clear out the stale air. To exhale completely, open your mouth and relax your throat, as if you were blowing fog onto your glasses to clean them. Exhale for a count of six, pulling your belly button in toward your spine so your abdomen flattens. As your abdominal core contracts with this powerful exhalation, the diaphragm and muscles around your rib cage relax, forcing air out of your lungs.
To inhale, close your mouth and relax your abdominal and shoulder muscles, drawing new air in through your nose. You don't need to consciously contract any muscles to inhale. The diaphragm and muscles around your rib cage will engage on their own after you exhale, expanding the space around your lungs so they can draw in new air. As this happens, the air pressure in your lungs lowers. Air always flows from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure, so it flows into your lungs without effort. Try to inhale slowly, for a count of four, feeling the air spill into the lowest part of your lungs.
Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is easier to learn while lying on your back. Correct breathing focuses on the diaphragm, not the chest muscles. Place one hand on your abdomen, just above your belly button, and the other hand on the center of your chest. As you breathe, you should feel the hand on your abdomen move up and down while the hand on your chest stays still throughout the breathing cycle. Exhale fully for a count of six, flattening your belly as you do so. Then relax your abdominal muscles and feel your abdomen and rib cage push outward with the inhalation for four counts. Keep your focus on the abdomen and lower ribs with both the inhalation and exhalation. Practice daily, and it will soon become habitual.
Cindy Killip is a health and fitness specialist, health coach, author and speaker who has been teaching and writing about exercise and wellness since 1989. She authored "Living the BONES Lifestyle: A Practical Guide to Conquering the Fear of Osteoporosis." Killip holds multiple certifications through the American Council on Exercise and degrees in communications and sociology from Trinity University.