By Gillian Mandich, MSc, PhD(c) (@GillianMandich)
Most of us have dabbled with different breathing techniques, whether it’s during yoga, Pilates, Lamaze, or a Darth Vader imitation (c’mon, admit it). Breathing is what keeps us alive, and without even thinking about it, we breathe about 15 times per minute (that’s more than 20,000 times each day). When you take a breath and inhale, your lungs expand with oxygen, nourishing the cells of your body, followed by an exhale and the release of carbon dioxide. According to Don Campbell, the author of Perfect Breathing, the breath is responsible for 90 per cent of your body’s energy. “The simple act of inhaling oxygenates and energizes every one of the trillions of cells in the body, and exhaling accounts for 70 per cent of the waste that the body expels,” Campbell says.
This suggests that, beyond basic survival, breathing is also critical for optimal health and wellness. Research has found that deep breathing can improve the overall function of your immune system, heart health, and sleep quality, as well as reduce blood pressure. In fact, Dan Brulé, a world-renowned pioneer in the field of breath work, suggests that breathing “is the link between mind and body.”
While breathing is often something we take for granted and don’t pay much attention to (for example, it has been suggested that the majority of people unintentionally hold their breath while reading emails), something as simple as learning to breathe properly can have a significant impact on both your mind and body — and can leave you feeling more efficient, productive, and energized! Here are a few tips to strengthen the link between your breath and your mind.
Our “suck it in” culture has allowed less-than-optimal breathing to become a default for many of us. When we suck in our stomachs to reduce our waistlines, we are forcing ourselves into a shallow breathing pattern that reduces the capacity of air we inhale and prevents deep belly breaths. This shallow breathing can increase our likelihood of feeling stressed, as a lack of oxygenated air in the bottom of the lungs can trigger feelings of anxiety as we struggle to fully breathe. Therefore, breathing deeply into our bellies can improve our overall mood by minimizing stress, and it can also lead to more optimal mind and body functioning.
Use It Or Lose It
We all know what it’s like to miss the gym for a week or two, and when we go back we tend to feel a bit weaker than we did before our hiatus. Just like any muscle, over time the diaphragm (our primary breathing muscle) becomes weaker when it is not used properly. Diaphragmatic breathing relaxes and focuses the mind. To determine if you are breathing from your chest (not ideal) or using your diaphragm (way better), place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Breathe normally and monitor which hand is moving. If you are breathing with your diaphragm, you will feel the hand on your belly rising and falling as you breathe and the hand on your chest will remain completely still. If, however, your breathing is shallow (a.k.a. coming from your chest), your upper hand will rise and fall, which means your breathing habits could use a little TLC.
Foster Feel-Good Hormones
There is a very simple cause-and-effect relationship between positive breathing and good health. Deep, slow breathing increases your internal levels of the hormone oxytocin (our body’s natural anti-anxiety drug) and reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Decreasing anxiety and stress in our lives helps to transform our mindset from negative to positive, which can have a profound impact on how we interact with our family, friends, teammates, and colleagues.
Get Into The Zone
Breathing is free, and also essential. Improve its role in your life by regularly taking a moment before you start a task, your job, or a workout to close your eyes and breathe deeply. This sets the stage for focused, energized success. It also relaxes you and makes you more conscious of your breathing during tasks. Try to inhale deeply through the nose, hold for one or two seconds, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat several times for a cooler, calmer you.
Waiting To Exhale
Awareness of our breath and proper breathing, even in simple, everyday situations, has significant benefits for our overall health and mental well-being. By bringing attention to our breath throughout the day, we can cultivate self-awareness. When we feel nourishing air fill our lungs and notice how it improves the body’s functions, we can connect to the rhythm, strength, and power of our breath and our body, reducing stress levels and making us feel much better overall.