01/26/2017 12:00 EST | Updated 01/26/2017 12:51 EST

Start Breathing Like It's Keeping You Alive (Because It Is)

gillian mandich

(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:

Breathe deeply

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.

deep breath

(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.

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