When we are relaxed or when we wish to become relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing is our normal state of affairs. The diaphragmatic process can be broken down into three stages: an inhalation begins with (1) the extension of the diaphragm, (2) moves easily into an extension of the chest and back breathing muscles and a slight rise in the clavicular girdle, and (3) the exhalation pulls in – relaxes – the diaphragm, chest and back breathing muscles, and allows the clavicular girdle to relax.
Breathing, like all activity in the universe, is simultaneously a cause and an effect. As a cause, by using a specific breathing pattern, for instance allowing our inhalation to be led by the chest instead of the diaphragm, we can create anxiety. As an effect, if we find ourselves in a state of anxiety, we will notice that anxiety has effected a state of chest breathing. To consciously cause a relaxed state we have only to return to our diaphragm to lead our inhalation, and the rest takes care of itself.
Most of the time, we are not conscious of our breathing because this activity is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. However, should we become savvy about how our breathing works, we can use it consciously to override our autonomic nervous system and control anxiety and relaxation responses in the body-mind cause and effect circuit. Conscious breathing becomes a valuable tool in allowing us to use our body – lungs, muscles, nerves – to work with our mind-states, altering thoughts and emotions that affect our cardio-vascular health, dental health, our vision, appetite, skin and hair, and postural health.
Human beings breathe in order to move gases, such as oxygen from outside of our organism to inside the organism via the blood stream and to remove carbon dioxide gas to outside the organism. This specific process of transporting gases is known as respiration. Respiration, through effective breathing, feeds each cell of every organ in the human body. Effective respiration removes toxins from the body imparting health to the tissues.
Breathing affects our quality of health and living, and our mortality. We have literally hundreds of breathing exercises to choose from. I will turn to my own training as an Integral Yoga therapist and choose a few key exercises for health and relaxation.
All exercises should be done on a light or empty stomach. Breathe through the nose unless otherwise instructed. Always exhale first to empty the lungs of tidal volume. Always lead with your diaphragm on the inhalation. Always end each exercise with a normal inhalation. These exercises are basic. Any complex breathing requires your physician’s permission and the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher, or if you have health issues, a yoga therapist.
The following are techniques or exercises in conscious breathing.
1.Spread a blanket, folded lengthwise, on the floor. At the head of this blanket lay another folded blanket that supports the back of the head and neck and shoulders.
2.Lie flat on your back with your body in a straight line. Close the eyes and cover them with a cotton cloth for relaxation of the facial muscles.
3.Breathe normally. Consciously feel the flow of your breath.
4.Inhaling, make certain that both lungs fill evenly. First feel the rise of your diaphragm. Next, feel the chest expand upwards and outwards. Practice until the two movements – diaphragm and chest become one smooth movement.
5.Exhale normally, emptying the lungs evenly on both sides.
6.Continue for ten minutes, eyes closed.
Purpose is to keep one attentive or mindful. This exercise invigorates the nerves, loosens the lungs and rib cage in preparation for deep breathing.
1.Lie down with eyes relaxed and closed and direct the gaze inward.
2.Keep ears alert and receptive.
3.Exhale until the tidal volume of the lungs is empty, but do not strain to squeeze out air and do not press the abdominals on the exhale.
4.Inhale normally through the nose.
5.Exhale “slowly” and deeply keeping the movement steady until the lungs are empty.
6.Continue for ten minutes and relax.
Purpose is to lengthen the duration of exhalation. This sooths the nerves and calms the brain.
1.This is a mindful exercise as well as a breathing exercise. Lie down and exhale until the lungs are empty. Now, inhale allowing the lower abdomen (diaphragm)to rise but without allowing a significant rise in the upper abdomen. This will take some practice.
2.Exhale normally. Now take a slow inhalation through the nose.
3.Listen to the sound and maintain a steady rhythm. Fill the lungs completely until the sound becomes inaudible.
4.Consciously draw your closed eyes downward gazing into the lungs.
5.Exhale without moving the diaphragm – slowly and deeply.
6.Continue for ten minutes and relax.
Purpose is to lengthen the inhalation. This exercise is excellent for low blood pressure, asthma, depression, and the nervous system.
The above exercises can be found in many variations in different manuals on pranayama (yogic breathing). I suggest ‘Light on Pranayama’ or ‘Light on Yoga’, by B.K.S. Iyengar, and that you work the exercises in these books with your yoga teacher or therapist or physical therapist.