In discussing the essentials of good health, a balanced diet and regular exercise are usually the first topics on the table. What gets less attention, however, is the importance of our breath habits in contributing to the vitality, clarity, and happiness we experience daily.
For the person interested boosting health from adequate to awesome, the practice of integrated breathing belongs right up there with, and one can even argue higher than, diet and exercise. We eat 3-5 times a day, we exercise maybe 3-5 times a week, but breathing? Dude, trying not to do it for 30 seconds might have some of us turning purple and close to passing out.
Integrated breathing is, on one level, simply the combined belly-chest respiration. Thinking on it more deeply, we see that it is a practical method for strengthening mind-body-spirit awareness. And in the final analysis, this skill–depth of self-awareness–knowing who we are, is without exaggeration one of the most precious skills we can strive to develop in this life.
Conditioning ourselves to make this integrated breathing the default pattern: how else can it help us? Getting more oxygen into the tissues improves energy levels and helps cleanse the blood; deep, relaxed respiratory patterns decrease the stress response and can reduce pain; and cultivating depth of self-awareness enriches all our relationships–in short, our systems organically shift in the direction of awesomeness.
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There are some key words/phrases to keep in mind when practicing the integrated breath:
*in and out through the nose,
*no excessive forcing/tension,
*expansion via relaxation,
*soft, not rough or loud
Belly breathing. I think of this more as re-learning a skill vs. learning a new skill set. As babies we all breathed this way; ergo, all the neural wiring is already there–we just have to re-activate it through mindful practice.
In some ways, diaphragmatic breathing (the fancy term for belly breathing) is like filling a water balloon. Turning on the faucet as the lip of the balloon is stretched over the spout, gravity brings water into the bottom first. Then, upward filling and even expansion as the liquid continues to accumulate within. Applied to the breath, you can visualize the energy of the incoming breath as a soft, white light pouring down into the belly below the navel, and filling up from there. The abdomen gently expands. No need to forcefully push the belly out–remember, the expansion happens via relaxation.
Exhaling, the belly falls flat again; if using the visualization aid, picture that light leaving through the nostrils.
Now since we understand that reading a recipe and executing a recipe are two distinct levels of achieving, I recommend you pause here and practice for a few minutes. In the beginning, it may help to place a hand on your belly so that you have the sensory input of the belly rising and falling as the breath enters and exits. Practice in quiet surroundings with minimum distractions, making it easier to familiarize yourself with the body dynamics.
Chest breathing. Integrated breathing not only joins belly and chest, but body and mind as well. We’re all chest breathing, but are we doing it mindfully? My guess is that most of us are not; my hope is that this instructional will inspire you (oh yeah, that pun was intended) to join that growing camp of people who are.
When we’re asked to take a deep breath in, it’s usually in our doctor’s office with a cold stethoscope on our back. And it’s likely that we suck air in through our mouth and hunch our shoulders up.
That habit is very inefficient, like spending $5 to make $10. Efficient chest breathing–again, expanding via relaxation–is more like spending $3 to make $13.
Again, the visual of a balloon filling, with even expansion in all directions, may be helpful. As you draw the breath in through the nostrils, visualize the soft, white light of the breath entering the chest, filling from the bottom upward. The ribs gently expand, and the neck and shoulder muscles don’t need to be used except toward the very end of the inhalation when bringing the breath into the upper portion of the lungs. Exhaling, the chest gently shrinks back to resting state.
Before going on, pause for a few moments to practice the efficient chest breath.
Integrated belly-chest breath. Almost home! Now it’s time to join the belly breath and the chest breath and practice making it a smooth, seamless flow. You simply want to have the idea of bringing the heavenly influence into the area below the navel first and letting its energy gradually and evenly fill upward to the area under the collar bone. Drawing the breath in through the nose, the belly expands softly, followed by expansion of the chest. Breathing out through the nose, the chest gently shrinks from the top down, the belly gently falls flat from top down. The next breath drawn in repeats the cycle.
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Remember that it’s like chess in that it takes minutes to learn but more than a few minutes to master. It’s like any strong relationship in that it takes investment of time, attention, and energy to achieve success. It’s not like hitting the lotto where a whole lot of whoa! instant gratification! big thrills! happens in one shot. The beneficial fruits appear gradually.
The beauty of this conditioning process–training oneself to breathe mindfully into both belly and chest, instituting it as the default breath programming–is that it can be done anywhere, anytime, no special equipment necessary. Morning commute? Turn the radio or your iWhatever off for a few minutes and practice. On hold with a telephone call? Turn your attention inward and practice while you’re waiting. Pushing a grocery cart through the aisles? Practice belly-chest breathing as you walk. Bedtime? Practice, and you may find that falling asleep becomes easier as your attention is trained on the breathing rather than the apparently endless stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations parading through the mind.
If I can help clarify anything regarding the above, reach out to me via the contact form below and I’ll be in touch. Thanks for the visit!