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The Healing Power of Breath

Chances are at some point a well-meaning friend has advised you to ‘just breathe.’ Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam and Faith Hill have musically urged us in varying ways to “Just Breathe.” As irritating as this advice can be, before you grit your teeth, smile your way through your pain and indulge in a snarky response, consider this: Yoga enthusiasts, athletic trainers, rhinoplasty surgeons, pulmonologists, neurologists and therapists of all kinds have been extolling the virtues of proper mindful breathing for years. Ancient history supports this. Greeks, Hindu’s, Native Americans and other indigenous people have long considered proper breathing essential to optimal health. As far back as 400 BC Chinese scholars studied the effects of breathing on health.

Most consider breathing as passive, requiring little thought or activity, it just is. It is a bit like saying “there are my legs, let’s run some hurdles.” We breathe 12 to 20 times per minute, roughly 17,000 to 30,000 times per day and we take in 30# of air molecules each day. What we breathe is another topic. Most of us don’t realize we are doing it and we don’t think twice about doing it, but the truth is most of us breathe improperly or at the very least inefficiently. How we breath is the issue. Purposeful breathing has been called the missing pillar of health in our Western health-obsessed culture. When is the last time any of us discussed it with our health care professional? Until we can’t breathe, we don’t think about how to breathe.

Breathing habits causally relate to physical, mental and emotional well-being. Breathing can contribute to chronic conditions like asthma, ADHD, anxiety, hypertension and headaches. It may also have musculoskeletal ramifications by depleting necessary minerals and weakening bone structure. Biological changes also contribute to poor breathing. Over the last 300,000 years our primary intake valves, our mouths and nasal passages have shrunk. Humans are the only species on Earth whose full compliment of teeth no longer fit in our heads. The biology of aging does not help either. By age 50, we lose 12 % of our lung capacity and it continues to decline. According to a study done in the 1980’s lung capacity may actually be more significant in longevity than diet, exercise or genetics. This does not mean we can sit in our recliners and merely breathe deeply!

To make any changes it is helpful to determine if you are a mouth-breather or nose-breather. Mouth breathing reduces body moisture which in turn irritates lung tissues as well as loosening the tissues at the back of your throat. Ancient practitioners of Tao call this ‘NiChi”, the adverse breath. Mouth breathing is associated with neurological, respiratory and periodontal disorders. 50% of us are mouth breathers. In contrast, nasal breathing absorbs 18% more oxygen per breath and is associated with a lower risk of cavities and respiratory issues. There is a school of thought that nasal breathing boosts your sexual performance. This may be just a side benefit of keeping your mouth shut and not snoring.

There are 4 areas that can directly benefit from proper and mindful breathing techniques:

Muscle Tension

Breathing exercises can aid in muscle tension relaxation throughout the day even before your morning coffee. Try bending forward at the waist like a ragdoll, inhaling slowly as you raise yourself inch by inch to a standing position. Exhale as you ‘swan’ forward and down. Stretch and repeat. Taking 2 minutes to breath in and out like this in the privacy of your own office can and focus your energies for the rest of the day.

Side Pain

The side stitches common to runners are diaphragm spasms, a muscle cramp associated the rapid breathing needed by runners to keep moving. Purposeful belly breathing is recommended because it expands your core and abdominal muscles. It is deeper, more productive and relaxing than the shallow breathing associated with chest breathing.

Increasing Energy

Using what is called the ‘stimulating breathing technique’ or in laymen’s terms ‘Bellows Breath’. Sit up straight, breathe in and out rapidly through your nose for 10 seconds. Take a 15-30 second break and repeat. It may not be as satisfying as an expresso, but it is another option.

Relaxation

This is what most of us think of when we hear about mindful breathing. That ‘inner peace’ piece that reduces stress. There is something called the ‘natural relaxation response,’ a physical state of deep rest which alters the way we react to physical and emotional stress. Yoga is a tried-and-true method of mindful breathing (called the pranayama) which is a key component. The poses themselves (the Asana) are only a small part of the overall discipline. Anyone can do them for strength and flexibility. Yogis believes the blending of the two, the asana and pranayama are the spiritual practice necessary for mind/body harmony. For those who don’t wish to engage in this practice, focused abdominal breathing (belly breathing) can accomplish much. It increases oxygen to the brain, stimulating the brain and elevating the calming effect.

The American Institute of Stress offers these suggestions:

  • Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth and relax your shoulders down your back. Many of us scrunch our shoulders up when stressed.
  • Imagine holes in the bottoms of your feet. As you breath in, visualize hot air flowing through the holes, up your legs, through your abdomen and filling your lungs.
  • Relax your muscles along this hot air flow. Exhale and refocus the visualization and relax.

If visualization is not in your wheelhouse, the simple exercise of square breathing can often do the trick. Inhale through your nose to a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, exhale for 5, hold for a count of 5 and repeat. This has been shown to reduce blood pressure 10-15 points in a matter of minutes. Different techniques are comfortable or effective for different people and circumstances. Mindful deep breathing can increase circulation, hormonal balance is cultivated, internal organs are oxygenated, and your nervous system is quieted. The key to all these available benefits is literally right under your nose. Comedienne Amy Poehler says “Just breathe. Sometimes you’re only a few breaths away from feeling better.”

The team at NHS Solutions has certainly been making changes. Most of us have know someone who has recovered from a respiratory illness, especially now. This reminder to breathe brings a renewed awareness of the power inside us and the healing, calming and restorative nature of breathing. As we converted to remote working, the ability to take a few more moments of mindfulness (no commute stress!) has provided just such an opportunity. As always, we invite your feedback.