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Don't Hold Your Breath!

Don't Hold Your Breath!

What is breath control?
What is it used for?
How does it work?
But I already know how to breathe!
Breathing tips

Picture yourself...
  • in a long line at the store. You have to be somewhere in five minutes, and you're getting really annoyed.
  • next up on the diving board, and you suddenly freeze in panic.
  • waking up at four o'clock in the morning, and you just can't fall back to sleep.
  • waiting for a final exam to be handed out, and your mind goes completely blank.
Chances are, you've been in at least one of these situations. How did you deal with it? There may have been a simple solution, right under your nose: breath control. back to top

What is breath control?
Breath control, also known as "breathwork," has been practiced in some parts of the world for thousands of years. Most of the breathing exercises done today trace back to the ancient Indian practice of pranayama, a form of yoga. (The word prana means both "breath" and "spirit," and "universal energy.") In some Asian cultures, people believe that you can reach perfect happiness, or nirvana, by doing nothing more than meditating on your breathing. Today, many people in the Western world rely on breath control to help them stay calm, centered, and better able to deal with the pressures of everyday life. The best thing about breath control is that it's free, doesn't require any gear, and can be done anywhere. back to top

What is it used for?
Breath control has come a long way from its roots in ancient India. It's used widely in childbirth classes, martial arts lessons, stress-reduction workshops, and sports training. Some breathing exercises are great to use anytime, on your own, for reducing anxiety, helping you focus, and lowering your stress level. Other forms of breath control can actually help pep you up.

Breath control may also be useful for certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure, digestive disorders, and heart palpitations. Some people who suffer from anxiety disorders find that breathing exercises can stop a panic attack in its tracks, reducing (or even doing away with) the need for antianxiety drugs. back to top

How does it work?
Your breath is kind of like a bridge between your mind and your body. When you're feeling stressed, your body automatically reacts by raising your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, metabolism, and blood flow to the muscles. By controlling the way you breathe, you can help reverse those processes, lowering your blood pressure and heart rate, slowing your metabolism, and restoring normal blood flow.

The way you breathe can also affect your moods and feelings, and vice versa. The next time you see someone who is angry or upset, watch the way that person breathes. Chances are, you'll notice that their breathing pattern is shallow, fast, and uneven. Controlling your breathing to make it slow and regular can help calm your emotions, especially when you're feeling anxious or stressed. No matter what's going on around you, breathing exercises can help you relax, stay cool, and think more clearly. back to top

But I already know how to breathe!
Since you were born, you've probably done a pretty good job of remembering to breathe, something like 20,000 breaths a day. Most people never even think about it. But if you do think about the way you breathe, and if you learn to control it to your advantage, it can be a powerful tool—a secret weapon to help keep everyday stress from turning into distress. back to top

Breathing tips
Here are some basic breathing techniques that you can practice anytime, whether lying on the beach, waiting in line, riding in the car, or listening to music in your room. Keep in mind that breath control has more benefits the more you do it. To really see results, make a point of doing your breathing exercises on a daily basis.
  • Observe your breathing. The most powerful breathing technique is also the simplest: just follow your breathing. Sit or lie with your spine straight, close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breathing, without trying to change it. Notice that following your breathing is pleasant and relaxing, a way of putting your mind and body in neutral. If your mind starts to wander, just gently bring it back to your breathing. Do this simple meditation for five minutes every day.
  • Breathe from your belly. When you breathe in, you should feel your belly go out, not your chest. An easy way to tell if you are doing this properly is to hold your hand over your abdomen as you take a breath. When you inhale, your hand should move outward, and when you exhale, it should move back in.
  • Keep it slow and steady. Whenever you think about it, focus on making your breathing slower, deeper, quieter, and more regular. Have you ever been told to take a deep breath before speaking if you're upset? It's a good habit to get into—and not just when you're upset. Aim to make your breathing slow, deep, quiet, and regular whenever you can.
  • Begin with an exhale. Most people in the West think of a breath as starting when you inhale. In east Asia, however, people think just the opposite. See what happens if you try breathing this way: Close your eyes and follow your breathing for a few minutes, but picture each breath cycle as beginning when you exhale and ending when you inhale. Chances are, this exercise will make you feel much more involved with the way you breathe and better able to influence it.
  • Squeeze out more air. When people try to breathe deeply, they often don't realize that you deepen your breath by exhaling more air, not inhaling it. If you can push more air out of your lungs, your lungs will automatically take more in. Try taking a deep breath, letting it out effortlessly, and then squeezing more air out of your lungs. You should feel this effort in the muscles between your ribs, muscles that most people are not used to using. If you do this exercise whenever you think of it, you will gradually build up these muscles, and your breathing will become deeper.
At first you will have to remind yourself to do this exercise, but eventually it will become an unconscious part of the way you breathe. Over time, you will naturally exhale for the same length of time that you inhale, a healthy goal to aim for.

Adapted from "Dr. Andrew Weil's Self Healing" newsletter. Copyright 1998 by Thorne Communications. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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