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Breathing for more life

This week, Health & Wellness author Cheryl Gordon explains the importance of proper breathing and methods to improve it

Our breath is constantly rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, entering and leaving our bodies. Full body breathing is an extraordinary symphony of both powerful and subtle movements that massage our internal organs, oscillate our joints and alternately tone and release all the muscles in the body. It is a full participation with life.” Donna Farhi, “The Breathing Book” (Holt Publishing, 1996)

On your last visit to the doctor, he/she may have asked you to take a deep breath. Here’s what I commonly see in my yoga therapy practice when I observe someone instructed to deep breathe.

They inhale. Their nostrils pinch a bit and it makes quite a sound on the intake of breath. Their arms and shoulders hug into the body. The shoulders and collar bones lift up. Neck muscles tighten. And often their bellies pull in. Try a deep breath in this manner. Does it feel liberating or joyous to you? It feels like a lot of work to me.

Our breathing automatically adjusts to whatever external circumstances require. It’s brilliant, really. Because we spend more and more time in sedentary activities, during which our brains are concentrating on reading or talking but not movement, our breath goes into a shallow holding pattern that just keeps the basics going. No point in investing a lot of energy in breathing deeply when the muscles are relatively stagnant. Every once in a while, however, the tissues of the body send out an SOS. FEED US! And you are prompted to sigh or inhale, as described above.

Breath is literally your life. As oxygen is brought into the lungs and permeates through the alveoli to the blood stream; hemoglobin molecules shuttle the oxygen to all the cells of the body. During shallow breathing, not a lot of volume of oxygen is being delivered. This translates to sluggishness, mental fog and increased stiffness.

One of the more efficient ways your body can breathe is shown in the illustration Figure One above.

As the lungs fill with air, the diaphragm descends down toward the abdomen to make more room for that balloon-like action. As you exhale, the lungs deflate and pull all the other bits back into place.

Maybe you notice that this natural breathing pattern involves letting your belly muscles relax on inhale. That can be a barrier for many of us who try to look skinny (by sucking in our gut) or think that tight “abs” will keep our backs happier. Breathing is a whole body experience. Relaxed breathing means that muscles need to relax as well as contract. That is a definition of strong muscles – ones that can lengthen and shorten as needed.

Program for Restoring Your Life by Breathing Better

  1. Constructive rest: (this could be done in bed if getting to the floor is difficult). Take 2 – 20 minutes here. Use a pillow if necessary and blanket to keep warm. Observe your natural breathing. Where do you feel movement? No movement? A lot of movement? Do you hold your breath? Is your breath ragged or irregular? Are there pauses? Where and how long? There is no right way to breathe right now. You are just familiarizing yourself with what you are experiencing today. (FIGURE TWO ABOVE)

  2.  Cat/Cow Stretch: Inhale, sit up erect, lifting the chest toward the ceiling. Exhale, hug the belly muscles in and let the back body stretch. Repeat 5 – 10 slow breaths, breathing in and out through the nose. (FIGURE THREE ABOVE) 

    Lean to one side on exhales. Lift back upright on inhales. If your arm gets tired up in the air, tuck it behind your back. Repeat 5 times to each side.

  3. Seated twist Inhale: Sit up tall, facing forward. Exhale gently twist to one side. Repeat 5 times to each side. (FIGURE FOUR ABOVE)

  4. Down dog with Chair: Keep knees a little bent, or a lot bent. Lift buttocks up and backward to length the entire spine. Take 3 – 5 long, patient breaths. (FIGURE 5 ABOVE).

  5. Relaxing Chest Stretch This could be done in bed if getting to the floor is too difficult. Place a rolled blanket along the length of the spine. Buttocks are on the ground. An additional pillow can support the head, if needed. Knees are dropped out to the sides and supported by more blankets or pillows so hips are comfortable. There should be a pleasant stretch along the inner thighs but no pain in joints. Let arms drape out to sides, palms up. More blankets could support the arms if this stretch is too much for tight shoulder or chest muscles. Rest here up to 15 minutes. (FIGURE SIX ABOVE).

Making these movements part of your daily routine will bring more life to your life!

For more information on breathing, or to question/comment about this article, please contact Cheryl at