(Photo: Liana Louzon)
Most of us have probably dabbled with different breathing techniques in yoga, Pilates, Lamaze or when imitating Darth Vader (c'mon, admit it). Breathing is what keeps us alive, and without even thinking about it, we breathe between 12 to 16 times per minute. That's 17,280 to 23,040 times each day!
Beyond basic survival, breathing is also critical for optimal health and wellness. Research has found that deep breathing can improve the overall function of our immune system, heart health and sleep quality. In fact, world-renown pioneer in the field of breath work Dan Brulé suggests that "breath is the link between mind and body."
Breathing is often something we take for granted and don't pay much attention to. For example, the term "email apnea" was coined in response to the observation that many people tend to unconsciously hold their breath while reading email (research has also formally validated this using heart rate variability). By bringing attention to the breath throughout the day we can cultivate self-awareness. Something as simple as learning to breathe properly can have a significant impact on both your body and mind, leaving you feeling more efficient, productive and energized!
Deep breathing can improve the overall function of our immune system, heart health and sleep quality.
Here are a few tips to strengthen the connection between your breath and your mind:
Our "suck it in" culture has created a less-than-optimal shallow breathing default pattern for many of us. When we suck in our stomach to reduce our waistline, we force ourselves into a shallow breathing pattern that reduces the capacity of air we inhale and prevents deep belly breaths.
Shallow breathing increases the likelihood that our stress response will turn on (when we don't get enough oxygenated air into the bottom of the lungs we can feel anxious as we don't take a full breath). Bringing awareness to our breath and breathing deeply into our belly may improve our mood (less stress signals) as well as our mind and body's 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 come back we 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 place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Breathe normally and see if you can notice 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 still.
(Photo: Lenanet via Getty Images)
Foster feel good hormones
There is a cause-and-effect relationship between positive breathing and good health. Deep, slow breathing increases the levels of the hormone oxytocin (our body's natural anti-anxiety drug) and reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).
Decreasing the anxiety and stress in our life helps to transform our mindset from negative to positive. It also has a profound impact on how we interact with our world and the people in it -- family, friends, teammates and colleagues.
Quit waiting to exhale
Breathing is free. You can do it anytime, anywhere. Taking a moment before you start a task, work or a workout to close your eyes and take in a deep breath sets the stage for focused, energized success. It also relaxes you and makes you more conscious of your breathing during your task.
Try to inhale deeply through the nose, hold for one to two seconds, and then slowly exhale through the mouth. Repeat a few times.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
Also on HuffPost:
To prepare for a restful night, Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, recommends this breathing technique, which acts like a natural tranquilizer. "Unlike sleep medications, which often lose effectiveness over time, 4-7-8 breathing is subtle at first but gains power with practice," Weil says. Try it: Place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth and keep it there throughout the exercise. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a gentle whoosh sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four. Now hold your breath for seven counts and follow with an eight-count whoosh exhale through the mouth. Complete three more cycles, repeating every five minutes until you drift off.
One small study found that yoga breathing exercises significantly improved lung function in patients with asthma when combined with medication. According to Larry Payne, PhD, founding director of the Yoga Therapy Rx certification program at Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University, this ancient rapid-fire breathing method is especially cleansing to the sinuses. Try it: Begin with a deep inhale through the nose, and on the exhale, breathe out short, powerful bursts, about one per second for ten seconds. That's one set; start with three sets and build as you go. Payne warns that this can increase your heart rate, so if you have high blood pressure or another heart condition, consult your doctor first.
"When we experience pain, we often hold our breath, which can contribute to inflammation through the release of the stress hormone cortisol," says Pernotto Ehrman. Try it: Close your eyes and imagine your body growing relaxed. As you breathe through your belly, visualize oxygen filling any areas of tension with comfort and calm. Then picture the pain leaving with each exhalation. "The longer you exhale, the more you stimulate the vagus nerve in the brain, telling it you're in a safe environment," says Chicago psychologist Michael Merrill, PhD.
This breathing style may ease nausea by encouraging peristalsis, the muscular contractions that move food down into the stomach. "Grounding breathing suppresses the gag reflex, and everything starts to flow in the right direction," says Pernotto Ehrman, who uses it with chemotherapy patients and pregnant women. Try it: Visualize walking barefoot down a long stone staircase. Inhale slowly through the nose for four counts while focusing on how cool the stones feel. Then exhale for eight to ten counts through pursed lips as you imagine taking a step down. Continue until the queasiness has passed.
Follow Gillian Mandich on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gillianmandich