Many philosophies on Earth believe that life begins and ends with breath. It's human nature to take breathing for granted. We generally don't even think of the process until we have a cold that blocks the airways and makes breathing a struggle. In ancient Ayurvedic texts, breathing is considered the most important food we can consume. When you consider that we can survive for days without food and water but only minutes without air, it is evident that breath really is life.
Breath is also the link between the body, mind and spirit- which are the three pillars of health. You cannot have perfect health if one of these three pillars are unbalanced. Cool biology fact: breathing is the only function of the body that is completely voluntary and involuntary. By manipulating our breath we can expand the consciousness, move past our egos and experience the source of universal energy...a.k.a being connected to everything. Before you write this off as hokey new-age tomfoolery, the scientific-proven health benefits of deep breathing, for even a few minutes a day, are pretty amazing.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known Harvard trained medical doctor and father of the integrated health-care movement, has said that if he had to give just one piece of advice to help maintain health it would be to work with your breath. The benefits are gradual and cumulative- they include treatment of:
- high blood pressure
- cold hands
- irritable bowel syndrome
- benign cardiac arrhythmias
- anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
They also assist in:
- improved digestion (better assimilation of nutrients from your organic groceries!)
- decreased oxidative stress
- helping to preserve telomere length in the cells (shorter telomeres are a bio marker for aging)
- detoxing by initiating movement of the lymph fluid through the lymphatic vessels which in turn carries nutrients throughout the body and efficiently collects cellular waste while helping to eradicate pathogens
- enhancing well-being (huge stress reliever!)
Stress is part of life. It is what gives us our fight-or-flight response but in today's world our stress is out of control and effectively damages all three of our health pillars (body, mind and spirit). All of us have a sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous-system. The sympathetic nervous-system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response along with the subsequent stress and anxiety. It also triggers the stress hormone cortisol. The parasympathetic nervous-system allows the body to relax and decrease anxiety- something we all need a lot more of in our life! Deep breathing actually increases the ratio of parasympathetic to sympathetic nervous-system activity bringing the body into a state of well-being.
All of these benefits are attainable with only a few minutes of deep breathing in the morning and again in the evening. There are so many different breathing techniques from exercises that relax you to ones that even help wake you up! The one I have been practicing for a couple of years now, and will share below, is Dr. Weil's Relaxation Breath (This link will bring you to a video of Dr. Weil performing this breath work.) and takes under five minutes to complete each time (when doing 8 breaths). I do my morning practice while my tea is brewing and the evening one right before I hit the hay for a fantastic way to de-stress and fall right to sleep.
Dr. Weil's Relaxation Breath
As you breathe in through your nose, bring attention to your abdomen and feel it expand first, then your lungs and finally your shoulders. As you exhale feel your shoulders lower, the lungs deflate and consciously pull your stomach in towards your back.
- Place the tip of your tongue against the skin behind your front teeth and keep it there for the entire exercise.
- Exhale through your mouth making a whooshing sound until their is no more breath left.
- Inhale deeply through the nose to a count of 4 with the mouth closed but tongue still in the yogic position (step 1).
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale making the whooshing sound again to a count of 8.
- Repeat steps 3 through 5 three more times for a total of 4 breaths. After practicing this for a month, you can increase to a total of 8 breaths.
Since I do this as my cheaters meditation (20 minutes morning and night- who has time for that?!) I perform this exercise in lotus pose (criss-cross applesauce) with my hands on my thighs, pointer finger and thumb touching. However, you can lie down if that is more comfortable for you. Since I have been doing this for a while now, I go up to 8 breaths and extend the time between my counts. For example, when I inhale to a count of 4, by the time I count to four, 8 or more seconds have gone by. The actual time is not important but keeping to the counts of 4, 7 and 8 and focusing on your breath is what you are aiming for.
Deep breathing exercises, outside of meditation, is the only health practice that I can think of that has profound benefits for body, mind and spirit and it is completely FREE! No expensive gym membership, home equipment or organic groceries. Just you, your body and a quiet room. See what peace can bring you!
Weil, Andrew. Eight Weeks to Optimum Health. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
Weil, Andrew. Health and Healing. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
Weil, Andrew. Healthy Aging: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
Kshirsagar, Suhas G. The Hot Belly Diet: New York: Atria Books,