Breathing Your Way to Wellness
Breathing. We don’t often think about it, but we all do it, all the time, simply because we need to survive. There’s a difference between surviving and flourishing though, and the truth is that breathing properly makes a huge difference to our lives.
Before we delve into doing it right, it’s interesting to understand how our lungs actually work.
By acting like bellows, our lungs expand and contract to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. This pumping action is facilitated by the diaphragm, a truly marvellous layer of muscle beneath the lungs. As we inhale, our lungs swell up to take in oxygen; as we exhale, the diaphragm pushes up and our lungs contract, expelling the carbon dioxide. Pretty ingenious, no?
You might wonder how, if it’s such a reflex mechanism in our bodies, can we possibly be doing it wrong? You’d be surprised, but it’s more helpful to consider how we could be doing it better. Health and wellness experts across the board agree that in order to unlock maximum benefits, we should start mindful about the way we breathe.
- Consciously taking slow, deep breaths
- Feeling the air travel into our lungs
- Being aware of where in our bodies we expand as we inhale, and contract as we exhale
Following this three-step technique enables us to enjoy a variety of benefits that range from assisting with our physical training to alleviating anxiety and stress, and even promoting general health.
Breathing for Runners
At some point or another, even the most seasoned runner has experienced a stitch. This happens when you get a cramp in your diaphragm, and it could be caused by one of a few factors. You might be starting and ending a breathing cycle (inhaling and exhaling) only when your dominant leg steps down. In order to combat this, try to switch your breathing cycle up. In other words, try starting and ending your breathing cycle when the foot on your other side makes contact with the ground instead.
However, the more common theories about stitches relate to posture and breathing. When you breathe in deeply you automatically start correcting a slouch, which could help to relieve the tension in your diaphragm.
Deep breathing, or “belly breathing” is the ideal technique for runners. Essentially it enables you to inhale as much air as possible, which keeps your body in the correct posture, and eases the ligaments that support your diaphragm.
To practice, all you need to do is place a hand on your belly as you breathe in, and make sure you feel it swell slightly. If your belly stays still and your chest rises, keep trying until your tummy rises instead of your chest. Try to occasionally take a very deep “belly breath” then expel as much of the air as possible, exhale until you can’t anymore then refill your lungs.
Breathing for Pilates
It’s interesting to note that Joseph Pilates never taught specific techniques for breathing. However, if you practice Pilates, you know how essential proper breathing is for getting the most from your exercise sessions. You’ll also know how important it is to remember to exhale as you go though the routines. It’s all too easy to hold your breath while you’re trying to hold new positions, but once you get the hang of it you’ll discover that mastering your breaths can actually assist you to maintain physical control.
Different instructors prefer different patterns, but all will agree that it’s important to maintain control over your breathing, and to get enough oxygen into your lungs. At different points in your exercise regime, you may be required to use different kinds of breathing techniques: Sometimes expelling air in short sharp gusts as you pump your arms, and sometimes switching the order in which you breathe in and out. Most of the time, however, you’ll be practising lateral breathing.
This is the opposite of the “belly breathing” that runners use. It involves activating your core, deep abdominal muscles, as you inhale into your ribcage. You should feel your tummy lower and become firmer as your upper torso expands with your breath. Breathing in such a way stabilises your core muscles, allowing you to maintain balance, and support other muscles in the process. In fact, this self same diaphragmatic control is used in weightlifting, where holding your breath in an effort to lift the weight can cause serious harm.
Breathing for Labour
Breathing techniques for childbirth have been around for aeons, and even ancient midwives understood the correlation between controlled breaths and a successful labour.
In times of stress, pain, or fear, it’s easy to slip into “panic breathing”. This is basically when you take shorter breaths in and out. Unfortunately, it results in your body receiving less oxygen, and contributing to the Pain-Fear Cycle. When this is initiated, it inhibits the release of oxytocin and endorphins – the natural painkiller. The more pain you experience, the more afraid you are, and the shallower you breathe, and so it continues.
In order to break or prevent this cycle, it’s important to maintain regular, controlled breathing. Much easier said than done, but definitely necessary. Doulas and midwives recommend a variety of ways to control your breaths and ensure that you inhale as much oxygen as can. In addition to giving your body the support it needs to labour, these breathing techniques also help to calm you down.
It’s interesting to note that the various techniques all relate to being present and mindful about your breathing, rather than your physical situation.
Breathing to Relax
In stressful situations where you need to keep it together, it’s handy to know how you can maintain your cool simply by focusing on how you’re breathing. Here are some tips on how to breathe to relax that you can use anywhere – from the boardroom to the traffic jam:
- Take a deep breath – Seriously. Just put everything on hold for a second or three as you fill your lungs and exhale slowly.
- Count as you go – Breathe in for the count of four, and out for the same. This instantly causes you to focus on something other than what’s stressing you out.
- Do some belly breathing – Again, this brings your thoughts away from your situation as you concentrate on feeling your diaphragm expand as you inhale.
- Exhale – Breathe out for as long as you can, until you groan even. It may help to visualise a jumping castle being deflated.
When you take control of your breathing, and stay mindful of when and how you breathe in and out, you’ll soon be able to keep calm and carry on, whatever you’re doing. From lowering your blood pressure, to regulating your sleep patterns, it’s as easy as breathing in and out.
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