Control Your Breath, Control Your Life—The Health Benefits of Deep Breathing

BreatheAware Learning

Control Your Breath, Control Your Life—The Health Benefits of Deep Breathing

What do LeBron James and Buddhist monks have in common?

Both are masters of intentional breathing.

They perform better at their respective crafts by taking slow, deep breaths that engage the diaphragm, saturate the bloodstream with oxygen, and calm the mind.

Throughout all eras and cultures, humans have practiced conscious, deep breathing. Hundreds of time-tested and scientifically validated techniques, patterns, and methods of breathing have been developed to enhance and control human physiological function and performance.

This article explains the benefits of deep breathing, and provides several deep breathing exercises that you can use to improve health and elevate performance.

What is Intentional Breathing?

Intentional breathing is the practice of consciously regulating the amount of air you inhale and exhale to breathe in a more efficient and healthy way.

As soon as you pay attention to your breathing, it immediately changes—and that is the very purpose: by slowing and controlling your breath patterns, you can turn an unconscious bodily process into a tool for health and well-being.

Conscious breathing involves several techniques. One is slowing down the breath, which stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, counteracts the sympathetic stress response (“fight or flight”), and deeply relaxes your mind and body.

Another conscious or deep breathing technique is the “box breath.” This breathing pattern consists of four sections—inhale, hold, exhale, hold—with each part held for an equal amount of time. The effect is simultaneously calming and invigorating, and can be described as a kind of “relaxed alertness.”

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What Are the Benefits of Deep Breathing?

How you breathe—whether fast or slow, shallow or deep—makes a huge difference in how you feel, how you focus, and how you respond to everyday situations and challenges.

Deep breathing is like a built-in health regulator, and when you practice enough – following your breath intentionally – it improves a wide array of physical and mental performance indicators and speeds up recovery.

Your respiratory system comprises the parts of your body that deliver oxygen from the atmosphere to your cells and tissues and transport the carbon dioxide produced in your tissues back into the atmosphere. Increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of your bloodstream allows red blood cells to fuel new physical capabilities.

Engaging in deep breathing exercises regularly, and with intention, leads to a vast array of physical benefits like reduced heart rate and blood pressure, better balance of oxygen and CO2 in the bloodstream, lower overall tension throughout the body, and better performance (expression) of genes.

Breathing also has an amazing benefit on your brain and mental health. Focusing on the act of breathing itself is a mini-meditation. When you can focus on one thought, idea or action, peripheral thoughts and worries begin to drift away. From this calm, relaxed place, you can use mindfulness and visualization techniques to further control your stress, improve energy and focus, work on self-improvement, and much more.

By focusing the mind on a single point such as your breath, you also elicit the body’s relaxation response and actually calm the nervous system. As the relaxation response kicks in, and stress starts to melt away, brain activity naturally slows down. In this state, mental chatter begins to dissipate, creating the conditions for concentration, clarity, and an overall sharper mental focus.

By working to understand your own breathing, to pay attention to it, to work it like you would a muscle, train it, explore its abilities, your breathing abilities will grow – quickly – and your body will thank you, from your lungs, to your core, your chest, heart, even your muscles, which will loosen up.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Let’s discuss a couple of useful, and scientifically-validated deep breathing techniques.

LONG EXHALE

To learn how to breathe deeply, the first step is to pay attention to the quality and length of your exhale. A long exhalation will reduce tension and stress in the body and brain by expelling carbon dioxide and activating the parasympathetic part of your nervous system. Plus it prepares your body for a strong and complete inhalation, which means you are able to fill up with oxygen much easier. Let's give it a try.

1. Sit with comfortable posture, back straight and hands on knees. You will breathe only through the nose.

2. Shoulders back, neck extended, create enough space in the abdominal area for your belly to expand and contract.

3. Now, try to push any remaining air out through your nose as you contract your belly.

4. Once you feel there is no more air to expel, take a strong nose inhale for a four count, expanding the belly.

5. Pause at the top of the four count, filled with air, then, contracting the belly, slowly exhale through the nose for a count of eight.

6. If you are comfortable, please try to repeat several times, feeling the power of a strong inhale for a count of four.

7. Then really calm yourself and focus on the slow, quiet, even, exhale for a count of eight.

8. Repeat the pattern several times!

BREATH LADDER

One way to train your breathing muscles to be able to breathe deeper, which means to truly get more oxygen into your body and exhale for longer to expel carbon dioxide is thought a simple breath ladder. Let's use the long exhale breathing pattern.

1. Sit with comfortable posture, back straight and hands on knees. You will breathe only through the nose.

2. Shoulders back, neck extended, create enough space in the abdominal area for your belly to expand and contract.

3. Now, try to push any remaining air out through your nose as you contract your belly.

4. Once you feel there is no more air to expel, take a strong nose inhale for a four count, expanding the belly.

5. Pause at the top of the four count, filled with air, then, contracting the belly, slowly exhale through the nose for a count of six.

6. Next set of reps you increase your inhale to a count of six, and your exhale to a count of eight - going up the ladder.

7. Next rep you inhale for a count of eight, expanding the belly, making sure you focus on a slow, quiet, even, exhale for a count of ten.

8. Finally try to make the next inhale a ten count, with a twelve count, slow and controlled exhale, contracting the belly.

9. Repeat the pattern several times: 4in-6out | 6in-8out | 8in-10out | 10in-12out.

When Should I Start Practicing Deep Breathing?

Intentional breathing is a simple but often overlooked way to maximize your physical and emotional health.

Paying a little attention to your breathing goes a long way in promoting physical and mental health. By learning to control your breathing, you take control of your life.

Breathing for health is built into who you are. It is always available to you, so why not start now?

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