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Deep Breathing

By Dennis Lewis

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Deep breathing is important from the standpoint of both health and spiritual development. Deep breathing increases our vitality and promotes relaxation. Unfortunately, when we try to take a so-called deep breath, most of us do the exact opposite: we suck in our bellies and raise our shoulders. This is shallow breathing. To learn deep breathing we need to do far more than learn new breathing exercises. Before deep breathing exercises can be of any lasting value, we need to experience and understand through the direct inner sensation of our own bodies the function of the chest and diaphragm in breathing, as well as the function of the belly, lower ribs, and lower back. We also need to observe how unnecessary tension in our muscles impedes our breathing.

The Mechanics of Deep Breathing

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure that not only assists in breathing, but also acts as a natural partition between our heart and lungs on the one hand, and all of the other internal organs on the other. The top of the diaphragm, located about one and one-half inches up from the bottom of the sternum, actually supports the heart, while the bottom of the diaphragm is attached all the way around our lower ribs and connects also to our lower lumbar vertebrae. When we breathe, the surface of our diaphragm generally moves downward as we inhale and upward as we exhale. (See if you can sense these movements periodically throughout your day.) When we breathe fully and deeply, the diaphragm moves farther down into the abdomen, and our lungs are able to expand more completely into the chest cavity. This means that more oxygen is taken in and more carbon dioxide is released with each breath. Deep breathing takes advantage of the fact that the lungs are larger toward the bottom than the top.

The Impact of Deep Breathing on Our Health

Deep breathing can have a powerful influence on our health. To understand how this is possible, we need to remember that the diaphragm is attached all around the lower ribcage and has strands going down to the lumbar vertebrae. When our  breathing is full and deep, the diaphragm moves through its entire range downward to massage the liver, stomach, and other organs and tissues below it, and upward to massage the heart. When our breathing is full and deep, the belly, lower ribcage, and lower back all expand on inhalation, thus drawing the diaphragm down deeper into the abdomen, and retract on exhalation, allowing the diaphragm to move fully upward toward the heart. In deep, abdominal breathing, the downward and upward movements of the diaphragm, combined with the outward and inward movements of the belly, ribcage, and lower back, help to massage and detoxify our inner organs, promote blood flow and peristalsis, and pump the lymph more efficiently through our lymphatic system. The lymphatic system, which is an important part of our immune system, has no pump other than muscular movements, including the movements of breathing.

Deep Breathing for Relaxation

Many of us breathe too fast for the conditions in which we find ourselves, that is, we actually hyperventilate. This fast, shallow breathing expels carbon dioxide too quickly and has many bad effects on our physical and emotional health. When our breathing is deep, however--when it involves in an appropriate way not only the respiratory muscles of the chest but also the belly, lower ribcage, and lower back--our breathing slows down. This slower, deeper breathing, combined with the rhythmical pumping of our diaphragm, abdomen, and belly, helps turn on our parasympathetic nervous system--our "relaxation response." Such breathing helps to harmonize our nervous system and reduce the amount of stress in our lives. And this, of course, has a positive impact on our overall health.

Breathing Exercises Can Be Harmful to Your Health

Everyday we see more and more books being published outlining various advanced yoga breathing exercises. But until we learn how to integrate natural breathing into our lives, many of these advanced yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) can be harmful to our physical and psychological health. (Such exercises include alternate nostril breathing, reverse breathing, and breath retention.) The key to deep breathing is to begin to learn to sense unnecessary tension in our bodies and to learn how to release this tension. This requires great inner attention and awareness. It requires learning the art of self-sensing and self-observation. A beneficial work with deep breathing begins with increasing our internal awareness. Without sufficient awareness, without great sensitivity to what is happening inside our bodies, any efforts to change our breathing will at best have no effect whatsoever (we'll quickly stop our breathing exercises), and at worst will create more tension and stress in our lives and thus undermine our health and well-being even further. For an example of how it is possible to begin working in a healthy way with your breath, you can try this simple transformative breathing meditation. To go deeper into the subject, to see how deep, natural breathing can promote health and support the work of self-transformation, you can pick up a copy of the highly acclaimed books The Tao of Natural Breathing and Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, or take a look at our breath-related books and Internet links.

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Last modified: February 14, 2014