Saturday, September 25, 2010

Breathe, breathe in the air

Don’t be afraid to share (lyrics courtesy Pink Floyd). I have been thinking about breathing lately. Why? Because this year I decided I needed to reconnect with parts of me that I let go dormant. I am involved in martial arts again and I am starting to get involved in my spiritual practices again. That means engaging in qi gong and meditation. And there is nothing more central in those practices than breathing.

But why on Earth would one need to focus on such a natural process? Well, for starters, most of us do it wrong. Yep, we do not breathe correctly. We were born doing it correctly, but somewhere along the way, most of us start to screw it up. We are born as abdominal breathers, meaning our breath is from our abdomen. But over time, most of us become chest breathers, meaning our breath comes from expanding our chest. This is bad. Chest breathing is shallower and increases respiration rate. The average adult resting respiration rate is 16 beats per minute (mine is 10.5 bpm). When completely calm and relaxed (liked meditating, not reading, watching tv, etc), it is not uncommon to drop to 5bpm. And for really accomplished meditators, yogis, and David Blaine, even lower than that. This is accomplished through abdominal breathing, which helps slows respiration rate. When completely relaxed, I have brought my respiration rate of 5.5bpm. I could probably go a bit lower but haven’t tried.

Research has shown that abdominal breathing is healthier than chest breathing. A paper in 1992 by the US Public Health Service lists abdominal breathing as a non-medication pain management technique and a 1997 paper by Meyer and Nelson on breast cancer treatment also notes abdominal breathing as a coping strategy. In a 2010 study on Depression and Anxiety, the Group Health Research Institute concluded that abdominal breathing was as successful at helping manage depression and anxiety as other “bodywork” therapies.

According to Dr. Robert Fried, professor of biopsychology at Hunter College, chest breathing leads to what he calls hyperventilation syndrome. Chest breathing causes you to breathe shallower, thus forcing your respiration up. Shallow breathing can lead to reduced blood flow to the brain. That reduced blood flow can leave you feeling groggy, dizzy, and shaky. And according to Dr. Migdow, it can contribute to stress-related disorders. Who thinks that’s a good idea? If you are like me, life itself provides enough stress. I don’t need bad breathing to contribute to the problem.

So it’s not just Eastern mystics that think this a good idea. Western science thinks it’s pretty nifty as well.

How do you know what type of breather you are? Simple, lie on your back and breathe. What moves, your abdomen or your chest? There ya go.

The trick now is to retrain yourself to breathe correctly. This is a challenge, trust me. I’ve been at it for a couple of days now and it’s still tough. According to the Pulmonary Education and Research Foundation, it can take weeks to accomplish this. That, of course, will vary based on how hard you work at it.

I think that doing this sitting or lying down is easiest to start with. For some reason, I find doing this standing to be more challenging.  I have a harder time feeling the abdomen move when standing. Start by relaxing your body. If lying down, let your arms rest gently at your side. If sitting, use a kitchen or other non-reclining chair. Sit with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. If standing, shoulders are relaxed, back is straight, and legs should be bent slightly (don’t lock the knees). Now breathe in and allow your abdomen to expand. Feel your belly move. Keep in mind you don’t want to constrict the chest. The chest still needs to expand as well, but in harmony with the abdomen. Don’t try to force it; allow it to happen naturally. That’s basically it. You can practice abdominal breathing anywhere, and with time, hopefully it becomes habit.

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