Right now, there is something special happening in your body.
It began as soon as you were born. It's a constant anchor to the present moment.
You are breathing.
Among other things, breathing fills our lungs with air and nourishes our blood with precious oxygen. You've been doing it your entire life, but would you call yourself a breathing expert? Do you know which muscle helps you breathe optimally and effortlessly? How long should each breath last? Do you pay any attention to your breathing?
This may seem silly, but let's re-learn how to breathe. With a few pointers and some practice, new breathing habits can bring you greater tranquility and contentment as you go about your day.
The Breathing Process
Let's take a look at each component of one complete breath. For more information on the breathing process and experience, check out kylekeane.com/yoga (look for the Movement Handout).
To inhale, use your diaphragm muscle. Find it by first locating your sternum. From there, go down a few inches until there is no more bone—below your chest but above your navel.
The diaphragm is the breathing muscle, but we don't use it! Instead, we tend to breathe higher up toward our chest region, which takes more effort and results in shallower breaths. This is just like lifting something heavy off the ground without bending your legs! Just as the legs help us lift weight without straining the lower back, the diaphragm muscle helps us get deep, satisfying breaths with minimal effort and tension. As you inhale, pay attention to whatever physical sensations you experience. Feel the air going into your nostrils or observe your diaphragm muscle as it gently pushes up and expands your stomach.
This is the step that most people ignore. Waiting a moment in between inhaling and exhaling allows vital chemicals to be absorbed into your lungs. In addition, this can be one of the most pleasurable parts of breathing. The lungs are full of air and all is well with the world. I think of it like the height of a jump on a trampoline; there is a sense of timelessness and peace in this moment.
As you exhale, focus on your diaphragm muscle as it eases back down, allowing your stomach to flatten out. Notice the air going out of your nostrils. At the end of the exhalation, begin the next breath right away; pausing too long after exhaling might make your next inhalation feel more strained.
The Experience of Breathing
Now that you are familiar with the step-by-step process of breathing, assess your experience of breathing in each of the following areas:
Does the breath feel nourishing and satisfying? Do you feel relief after exhaling? If you're up early, consider taking a few breaths outside, when the air tends to be the freshest. These very well might be your best breaths of the entire day!
How long does your full breath cycle last? In general, an average breath using the diaphragm muscle takes about two seconds for the inhalation, one second for the pause, and another two seconds for the exhalation. However, these are only ballpark figures; don't force yourself to breathe longer or shorter than what feels natural for your body.
Does your breathing feel strained or full of effort? Is it causing pain in any part of the body? Are any muscles becoming fatigued? Typically, breathing should be effortless and comforting. Don't strain or force anything involving your breath.
For each of these breathing experiences, let your breath guide you. Listen to your body and let it show you what a satisfying breath feels like and how long it lasts. For example, rather than forcing yourself to inhale for two seconds, pay attention to your body and observe how long a comfortable inhalation lasts for you.
1. Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211-237.
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