Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your lungs completely.
Now slowly and smoothly exhale through your mouth. How does that feel?
The respiratory system is one of the neatest functions of the human body. It is the only bodily system that is both autonomic and voluntary. You don’t need to remind yourself to breathe in your day-to-day life or when you’re sleeping- it just happens.
Since it is such an automatic function, think of how many times you’ve disregarded the advice to “just breathe.” We all know we should, but why do we disregard the importance of breathing properly?
How you breathe can also affect how you perceive certain situations.
If you have ever had anything scare you, you’ll often inhale sharply and then you may not realize that you’re holding it afterward. This triggers your fight-or-flight response and will change how you perceive your surroundings.
When you hyperventilate, your breathing rate becomes rapid, causing a fast reduction in carbon dioxide in your blood, which narrows the blood vessels, causing your heartrate to spike and you to become lightheaded. To prevent this, try to become aware of when you are agitated and work to take slow and purposeful breaths.
On the opposite side, though, when you actively take deeper breaths and you’re able to slow your respiration down, your body can function more efficiently. Your heartrate stabilizes, your thoughts become clear, and you feel calm. There is more oxygen circulating throughout your body and you are telling your subconscious mind that you are in a safe place where you can relax.
The importance of breath.
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you might have noticed that apart from the movement itself, there is a large focus on breathing properly. It’s very controlled and deliberate, which allows you to connect deeper within yourself. (Here is a better explanation from a true yogi of the importance of breathing in yoga.)
Even in non-yoga settings, you’ll often hear people instructed to focus on their breathing in strenuous scenarios, like while giving birth or weightlifting. When we are under a lot of stress, it’s easy for our mind to redirect the energy of breathing to the task at hand, which can become dangerous.
Strenuous activities require a lot of oxygen and energy, but when you hold your breath, you decrease that air supply, which can cause you to become lightheaded and dizzy, possibly leading to you passing out.
One breath, one mind- using breathing for mindfulness.
Apart from creating more stability and balance in your daily life, taking the time to focus on your breath helps you to live in the moment. With your next stretching routine, try to focus on your respiration and keep it consistent the whole time.
Focusing on your breathing allows you to be completely present in the pose and can help you carefully ease deeper into each stretch. By doing this, you will also feel powerful and grounded throughout your routine and afterward.
You can be breathing wrong.
Just like any other repetitive motion, you can get in the habit of breathing a certain way that doesn’t allow your respiratory system to function efficiently. This could stem from how you take air in, what your posture is like, or even the speed and depth of your inhalation.
As our society has become a lot more computer-focused and we spend our days hunched over our desks, our breathing takes a toll. Poor posture prevents our lungs from expanding the way they should, to the point where our lung capacity is 30% less efficient!
It may feel like you’re breathing deeply when your shoulders creep toward your ears, but you are limiting the amount of air you take in. The muscles around your lungs are designed to pull down and expand out, not upwards.
By using proper posture, we can significantly improve the quality of our oxygen intake and gain more energy and focus in the process.
Breathe through your nose.
While it may feel like we’re taking in more air by breathing through our mouths, breathing properly through our noses is best for our health. Your nasal passages warm the air coming in and add necessary humidity, as well as filter out unwanted particles to prevent illness.
If you would like some more sources and studies, Chris Taylor highlights the top books and studies that focus on respiration in his article here.
Here are some types of breathing exercises that can help you throughout your day:
Best for centering yourself and calming down. This can be done at any time, day or night.
Sit with good posture or lie down flat on your back. Take a inhale deeply through your nose. Allow your diaphragm to pull downwards, which will allow more air into your lungs. As your diaphragm moves downwards, it will feel like the air is filling your stomach and that your rib cage is expanding outwards (not upwards).
Exhale through your mouth, feeling all your muscles contract. The more you practice this method, the deeper your breath will become. Once the air expands your stomach, you will be able to feel your lungs expanding to the side and away from your back as well.
Best for strenuous activities or when you need to focus on a specific task.
Before you do strenuous activity, take a deep breath through your nose. At the most taxing part, breathe out slowly by pushing the air through your pursed lips. For example, if you’re doing push-ups, as you’re resting with your arms extended, breathe in. Exhale slowly as you let yourself down and push back up.
Best for deep relaxation, calming before sleep and stabilizing mental health. Do not do this before you need to be sharp and alert, since this breathing pattern slows down your bodily functions.
Get your body into a comfortable position, be it sitting or lying down. If you wish to place your hand on your stomach as a focal point, you can do that. Inhale through your nose for the count of 4. Hold it while you slowly count to 7 in your head. Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.
If this is a new activity for you, doing more than four repetitions in a row may cause you to become lightheaded. If this happens, you should stop and breathe normally until you feel well again.
Like any skill, learning to focus on your breathing is something that takes continuous effort and practice. One way to improve your breathing is to start singing. Learning to sing helps you to control your airflow and pressure as well as increases your lung capacity.
Learning about the importance of breathing properly will make a significant difference in how you feel about your day. You will find that you have more energy overall and that you will feel balanced, regardless of what the day throws at you. Such a small change, it will have massive effects on your life.
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Written by Kayla Willsey
Updated June 3, 2021