From Death Defiers, 1998, Men's Health imprint, (c) Rodale Press, Inc.
Take It All In
by Ken Winston Caine
Unless you’ve had lessons, chances are you don’t know how to breathe. Chances are you're silently, secretly suffocating, says breath researcher and psychologist Gay Hendricks, Ph.D.
Dr. Hendricks conducted experiments and reviewed more than 300 scientific studies of “breathwork” while researching his popular book Conscious Breathing. He is convinced most of us could use a few breathing lessons. Here’s why.
Breathing is how we rid 70% of the toxins from our bodies and how we cleanse and oxygenate our blood and every cell, says Dr. Hendricks. The remaining wastes are discharged through urine, sweat and defecation. If we aren’t breathing right, other purification systems—such as our kidneys—get overworked.
And, Dr. Hendricks says, “there is one universal breathing problem: the tendency to hold your belly muscles too tense so you can’t get a deep breath down into the center of your body.’
Instead most of us, most of the time, breathe from the top of our lungs. Here’s a problem with that: “Less than 1/10th a liter of blood per minute flows through the top of the lungs; 2/3rds liter per minute flows through the middle of the lungs and more than a liter flows through the bottom,” says Dr. Hendricks.
The chest breather constantly discharges too much carbon dioxide and takes in too little oxygen through short, shallow breaths. The imbalance forces the heart to work overtime and raises the blood pressure. Dr. Hendricks says studies show a relationship between shallow breathing and heart attacks and that heart attack patients who learn deep belly breathing tend to have fewer second heart attacks.
Why Bother with Breathing?
Correct, deep, belly breathing, says Dr. Hendricks, has been shown to:
· Melt tension. It counters the shallow tight breaths produced by the instinctive “fight or flight response” that we find ourselves kicked into automatically, frequently.
· Clarify and focus the mind.
· Increase energy and endurance.
· Clear unpleasant emotions. Two or three big breaths into the heart of an injurious emotion such as fear, anxiety or depression is often enough to move it out of the body.
· Improve skin tone when practiced regularly by sending more oxygen to the skin and by releasing more toxins through the breath and fewer through the skin.
· Help manage pain. (This is why it is taught in natural child-birth classes.) Do not hold your breath when in pain or anticipating pain. Instead, breathe -- calmly, deeply.
· Significantly lower blood pressure.
· Improve athletic performance.
Deep breathing is considered so beneficial in reversing heart disease that it is taught in the highly touted programs taught to heart patients at Dean Ornish, M.D's Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausolito, Calif.. says Arthur Brownstein, M.D., medical director of the Princeville Medical Clinic and clinical instructor of medicine at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine in Honolulu.
Doing it Right
Dr. Hendricks watched 100 babies breathe and then compared that to adult breathing tendencies. He firmly believes that for maximum health and well-being, we need to take baby breaths--that is, to breathe like babies do.
Baby breaths are not itty-bitty, short, shallow breaths. Babies breathe fully, uninhibited, moving their belly and spine with each inhalation and exhalation.
Here are the basics of Breathing 101, as mentored by Drs. Henricks and Brownstein and Barbara Lang. Dr. Lang teaches yogic breathing at the Duke University Center for Living, in Durham, North Carolina, in a medically supervised program for people with heart problems and other degenerative diseases.
Get past tense. Tense your stomach. Relax your stomach. Tense your stomach. Relax your stomach. Do this maybe a dozen times--until you are well aware of how a relaxed stomach feels.
Give yourself a hand. Put your hand on your belly. Breathe slowly, comfortably, deeply enough to make your hand rise with each inhalation and fall with each exhalation. Work with that until you are doing it easily. And then:
Go for ribs.Put your hand on the side of your ribcage. Continue breathing slowly, comfortably and into your belly. If you are truly breathing correctly, you will feel your ribcage expand to the side with each inhalation.
Move your spine. “Babies can lie in a crib all day without getting a backache because they move their spines with each breath,” says Dr. Hendricks. “We tend to hold ourselves more stiffly as we age.” Loosen up. With each in-breath, let your spine move away from the chairback (if you’re sitting) or away from the floor if you’re lying on your back. On each out-breath, let it flatten against the chair or floor.
That’s your basic, healthy breathing.
To remember to do it, associate the term “breathe” with normal everyday activities such as reaching for the phone, or standing, or sitting, or turning, or scratching an itch, recommends Larry Feldman, Ph.D., director of the Pain and Stress Rehabilitation Center in New Castle, Delaware. Then, he says, taking healthy, deep breaths at intervals throughout your day will become as natural as, well, breathing.
Catch Your Breath
We take about 20,000 breaths each day. For a healthy man that should translate into 12 to 14 breaths per minute, says breath researcher, psychologist Gay Hendricks. Catch yourself breathing normally and calculate your per-minute rate. If it is higher than that, your health is in jeopardy and you should make deep, comfortable, slower breathing a priority, says Dr. Hendricks.
Much of the "breathwork" taught by doctors today is drawn from ancient Oriental spiritual teachings. Many of the health claims for ancient Taoist, Hindu and Yogi breathing exercises have been substantiated in the laboratory. One such exercise, alternate nostril breathing, is a proven tension tamer and mental energizer, say Dr. Hendricks. Here’s how he teaches it:
Close off one nostril with the index finger of your dominant hand and breathe out and then in through the other nostril, slowly, gently, fully. Then close off the other nostril, still using your dominant index finger, and breathe out and then in through the open nostril. Keep your belly muscles relaxed and breathe comfortably, slowly in and out of your abdomen. Put your attention on the sensations of the breath leaving your nose and the breath returning. Alternate like this for two minutes and then switch to the index finger of your non-dominante hand and continue for two minutes. Switch back to your dominant hand for one more minute and then rest for a minute with your hands in your lap.