By Claire Diab and Dennis Boyle
The breath sustains all basic human functions, as all cells in the body require oxygen for function and vitality. When we breathe oxygen-rich air into our lungs, oxygen is picked up by our red blood cells and pumped by the heart to every cell of the body. Our red blood cells then collect carbon dioxide and transport it back to the lungs, where it is expelled as we exhale. This small miracle happens automatically, about 20,000 times a day, without us having to think about it!
Many of us are habitual shallow breathers, using only a small percentage of our lung capacity and keeping us from tapping into all the health benefits that are available to us. Poor posture and tightness in the muscles around the shoulders, chest, back, and abdomen can contribute to this shallow breathing pattern. Most people know that yoga is good for improving flexibility, strength, and posture. But, the practice of yoga is inherently linked to the breath and is centered on complete and mindful breathing. The benefits of yoga and yogic breathing are as follows:
- More energy–deeper breathing increases the oxygenation of the blood and more oxygen reaches your cells.
- Clearer thinking—25 percent of your oxygen intake is sent to your brain.
- Stronger immune system–diaphragmatic breathing enables the lungs to fill more completely, enhancing the movement of lymph fluid and the removal of waste products it contains.
- Enhanced ability to handle stress–yogic breathing balances the autonomic nervous system and results in relaxation, improved sleep, and lower stress levels.
Practicing a full breath brings awareness to the diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the lungs separating the thoracic and abdominal cavities. It attaches to the lower ribs and the lumbar (low back) vertebrae. When it contracts, it moves downward, creating negative pressure and also moving the ribs down and forward to create more space for the lungs to expand. Exhalation is more passive, but during conscious breathing or during strenuous activity, it involves activity from the internal and external oblique muscles and the transversis abdominis muscle.
Try this simple breathing exercise:
- While seated with your hands in your lap, close your eyes and take a full breath in through your nose and fill your belly. Focus on expanding out into the belly on your inhale and not shrugging your shoulders or expanding your chest. Notice how this feels. Notice the “shape” of the breath. Notice if you can feel the breath expand in four directions: front and back, left and right. Repeat for 5-6 breaths.
- Then stretch your arms over head and take 2-3 deep breaths in and out. Take your overhead, outstretched arms over to the left and take 2-3 deep breaths, noticing the stretch in the right side body as you inhale fully. Stretch to the opposite side.
- Finally, clasp your hands back behind your back and take 2-3 deep breaths. Then relax and again with hands in your lap and notice the shape of the breath. It should feel fuller and lighter. Repeat for 8-10 breaths.
This simple practice of conscious diaphragmatic breathing and simple upper extremity stretching is a great way to start the day and commit to more vibrant health. And, adding conscious complete breathing throughout the day will can bring you energy, relaxation, and clarity. That’s taking your yoga off the mat!
Claire Diab is an internationally recognized Yoga therapist. She is the director of the Yoga Program for the Chopra Center founded by Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dr. David Simon. She is an adjunct professor of Asian Studies at Seton Hall University. She is the author of several books and DVDs on Yoga including “Yoga For Firefighters.”
Dennis Boyle is a retired fire director and acting chief with the West Orange (NJ) Fire Department. He was the recipient of the 1999 New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs “Fire Officer of the Year” award.