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The Seven Secrets of Deep, Natural Breathing

August 18, 2009

The Breath of Life

The Breath of Life

Deep, natural breathing can be important for health, healing, and spiritual well-being. Such breathing can increase our vitality and promote deep relaxation. Unfortunately, many of us who try to take a deep breath sometimes do the exact opposite of what is required: we suck in our bellies, raise our shoulders, and try to expand our chest. That is shallow breathing.

Deep, natural breathing depends on the full, fluid motion of the diaphragm through its entire range of motion. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure that not only is the primary breathing muscle but also acts as a natural partition between the heart and lungs on the one hand, and all of the other internal organs on the other. The top of the dome of the diaphragm, located about one and one-half inches up from the bottom of the sternum, actually supports the heart. The diaphragm, which attaches not only to the ribs but also to the lower lumbar vertebrae, contracts downward as we inhale and relaxes upward as we exhale. Of course, the diaphragm moves in many other ways as well.

When our breathing is natural and deep, our lungs are able to expand more completely. This means that more oxygen is taken in and more carbon dioxide is released with each breath. When our breathing is natural and deep, the belly, lower ribcage, and lower back all expand on inhalation, thus drawing the diaphragm down deeper into the abdomen (though never below its connections to the lower ribs), and retract on exhalation, allowing the diaphragm to move fully upward toward the heart and lungs. In fact, it is the upward movement of the diaphragm on exhalation that squeezes the lungs and helps empty them of old air.

In deep, abdominal breathing, the rhythmical downward and upward movements of the diaphragm, combined with the outward and inward movements of the belly, ribcage, and lower back, also help to massage and detoxify our inner organs, promote blood flow and peristalsis, balance the nervous system, and pump the lymph more efficiently through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system, which is an important part of the immune system, has no pump other than muscular movements, including the movements of breathing.

The first step to learning how to breathe deeply in a natural, effortless way is to sense any unnecessary tensions in your body and to learn how to release these tensions. Then, when the body needs to breathe deeply for the task at hand, it will be able to do so. Releasing unnecessary tension requires great inner attention and awareness. It requires learning the art of self-sensing and self-observation. Without sufficient awareness, without great sensitivity to what is happening inside our bodies, any efforts to change our breathing will at best have no effect whatsoever (we will quickly stop our breathing exercises), and at worst will create more tension and stress in our lives and thus undermine our health and well-being even further.

There are many effective ways to learn to sense and release your unnecessary tensions. Among the best are meditation, tai chi, qigong, yoga, bodywork, dance, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander method. What is most important in all these activities, however, is learning how to listen to your body and to how your negative, anxious, and judgmental thoughts and emotions create unnecessary tension throughout your body, thus impeding your ability to breathe fully.

Here, then, are the seven secrets of deep breathing. These principles also apply to natural, spontaneous breathing in any situation.

1. Don’t try to breathe deeply in all situations
The human organism is not designed to breathe deeply at all times and in all situations. Trying to do so will create many problems. The depth of our breath, whether it is shallow, medium, or deep, depends in large part on what it is we are doing. If we are sitting quietly reading, for example, we do not need to be breathing deeply. If we are working hard and expending a great deal of energy, however, we might well need to breathe deeply. Another situation in which deep breathing can be beneficial is when we are trying to revitalize our energy or for special breathing or healing exercises.

2. Whenever possible, breathe slowly and easily through your nose
When we breathe through our nose, the hairs that line our nostrils filter out particles of dust and dirt that can be injurious to our lungs. If too many particles accumulate on the membranes of the nose, we automatically secret mucus to trap them or sneeze to expel them. The mucous membranes of our septum, which divides the nose into two cavities, further prepare the air for our lungs by warming and humidifying it.

Another very important reason for breathing through the nose, one that many people are unaware of, has to do with maintaining the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. When we breathe through our mouth we usually inhale and exhale air quickly in large volumes. This often leads to a kind of hyperventilation or overbreathing (breathing excessively fast or breathing too much air for the conditions in which we find ourselves).

It is important to recognize that it is the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood that generally regulates our breathing. Research has shown that if we release carbon dioxide too quickly, which happens when we breathe too fast, the arteries and vessels carrying blood to our cells constrict and the oxygen in our blood is unable to reach the cells in sufficient quantity. This includes the carotid arteries which carry blood (and oxygen) to the brain. The lack of sufficient oxygen going to the cells of the brain can turn on our sympathetic nervous system, especially our “fight or flight” response, and make us tense, anxious, irritable, and depressed. There are some researchers who believe that excessive mouth breathing and the associated hyperventilation that it brings about can result in asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other medical problems.

3. Sense yourself being supported by the earth
Many of us are not very well grounded as we move through our lives. Our center of gravity is generally up in our chest and head. To breathe deeply and fully, however, requires that we begin to sense our center of gravity down in the navel area or just below. This is the area of the Hara (Japanese) or Lower Tan Tien (Chinese). It is also our natural center of gravity, which martial artists know so well.

What does it mean to ground ourselves? Is there anything that we can actually do, or is it simply a matter of being fully in the moment? Yes, there is something we can do. We can realize that in reality the earth has always supported us and that we are already grounded, and that if we don’t experience the benefits of this it is because we are lost in our thoughts, judgments, reactive emotions, and imagination.

All it takes is a bit of attention to what is actually happening right now and here–attention to the tensions that buffer us from the experience of being where we are: our tense raised shoulders, our tense feet on the ground always ready to go somewhere else, our tight, constricted breath. As we begin to observe these various habits and tendencies in ourselves, something lets go and we sense a living connection to the earth and its vast reservoir of energies. In short, we begin to relax into ourselves, which stimulates a natural, full breath.

4. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed as you breathe
Though sensing ourselves being supported by the earth will have an immediate beneficial impact on our breathing, many of us raise our shoulders in moments of anxiety, uncertainty, tension, and fear. Raising your shoulders takes the considerable weight of your shoulders off of your lungs, which stimulates upper chest breathing. Upper chest breathing is not deep breathing. It is generally shallow breathing. If you know someone with advanced emphysema, notice how their shoulders are typically frozen in a raised position. This helps them take in more air since they are not capable of taking a deep breath. So remember to allow your shoulders to drop down. Keep them relaxed.

5. Let your belly expand as you inhale and retract as you exhale
If you have a tight belly, one that does not easily and freely expand outward as you inhale, the diaphragm will have a more difficult time moving downward (and giving more space for the lungs to expand) because it is being resisted by the contracted abdominal muscles and the viscera. You must remember that everything touches something else in your abdomen, and a movement or constriction in one place influences everything around it. When you relax your belly and allow it to expand as you inhale, your viscera drop slightly down and out and thus make it easier for the diaphragm to contract downward. Then, when exhalation takes place, the diaphragm begins its upward movement of relaxation, aided by the elasticity of the diaphragm and the natural movement of the belly as it returns toward the spine.

As an experiment to see how your belly influences your breathing, intentionally suck in your belly now and try to inhale deeply (be careful not to do so too strenuously as you can hurt yourself). Then, once you are convinced that a tight belly impedes breathing, let your belly relax, put both hands on it, sense the warmth and energy coming from your hands, and allow your belly to expand as you inhale and retract as you exhale. Take several breaths in this way with your hands on your belly. Notice any differences from when you held your belly in tightly.

The fact is, with your belly held very tightly there will be much less downward movement of your diaphragm on inhalation since there is so much resistance to this movement from the abdominal muscles and viscera. And, if there is little downward movement on inhalation, there will be little upward movement on exhalation. So you will sense a lot of tension and effort in your breathing, which will often become less efficient, shallower, and faster, driven mainly by the secondary breathing muscles of the chest.

6. Learn how to free up your diaphragm
As a result of more and more mental and emotional stress in our lives, as well as the common image of the flat, hard belly that is so prevalent today, people carry a lot of unnecessary tension in their bellies, and, over time, this, combined with unnecessary tensions in the throat, chest, and back and many other factors that I discuss in my books and audio program, constricts the diaphragm and makes it difficult for it to move through its full range of motion. A lot of this tension is a result of the over stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system, which can arouse a “flight or fight or freeze” response. Over time, this diminished movement of the diaphragm becomes the norm for many people, and the diaphragm in fact weakens and loses its ability to move through its entire potential range of motion (some five to six inches in the vertical direction), which means it often becomes incapable of moving fully downward or fully upward during the in-breath and the out-breath.

When the diaphragm is unable to move freely and easily, both our inhalation and our exhalation suffer and so does our voice, and eventually our health and well-being suffer as well. (It is important to realize that it is not just the diaphragmatic movements up and down that become restricted, it is also the horizontal and other movements, as well as the shape and size of the diaphragm that are adversely affected.) If your diaphragm has weakened over the years, which is the case for many people, it will be helpful to undertake remedial action to strengthen it. The most effective way to do so is through a special program of vocalization, including humming, chanting, and singing.

7. Do not use excessive effort in deep breathing
It is important to realize that excessive effort creates tension that impedes the diaphragm and secondary breathing muscles (the intercostals) and thus undermines the breath. It is imperative, therefore, that anyone attempting to work with his or her breath use the minimum amount of physical effort necessary when doing any kind of breathing exercises and learn how to sense what happens not only in their breathing muscles but also in their entire body when they undertake these exercises. The key words here are gentleness, self-sensing, and awareness.

The reason for this is simple: the brain learns and performs best when we use the least possible effort to accomplish a given task. For thousands of years, Taoist masters have emphasized this principle through their advice to use no more than 70 percent of our capacity in carrying out physical practices related to movement and breath. The Weber-Fechner psychophysical law (the law is described in detail on page 48 of Peter Nathan’s book The Nervous System, Oxford University Press) demonstrates one reason why this is so important; it states that the “senses are organized to take notice of differences between two stimuli rather than the absolute intensity of a stimulus.” When we try hard to do something, when we use unnecessary force to accomplish our goals, our whole body generally ends up becoming tense. This tension makes it more difficult for our brain and nervous systems to discern the subtle sensory impressions necessary to help carry out our intention in the most creative way possible. And it creates tensions throughout the body that make it more difficult to breathe freely and easily and thus undermines the spontaneous flow of the breath of life. So stop trying so hard; just let yourself be breathed.

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis

To go deeper into the conditions that enable a fuller, more natural breath, and to learn how your breathing can help you open to the miracle of your being, read my latest book: Breathe Into Being: Awakening to Who You Really Are.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2009 8:39 am

    Dennis

    The article is very interesting but when I do it practically lots of disturbances come to my mind like my mind becomes blank and is unable to sense anything inspite of trying hard.

    Now when I focus on my belly for expanding it expands duirng inhale and contracts when exhale. When I try to do for a minute suddenly I loose track and am lost whether my belly is expanding during inhale and contracts when exhale.
    The portion below is the navel is the centre of gravity, but when I focus my thoughts that the earth supports me. I know the earth supports me when I stand or sit if it was not for the earth to support I would definitely fall.

    I still keep on reading but still undergoing difficulties. Anyway I will try to succeed.

    Regards

    Celes

    • August 19, 2009 8:59 am

      Celes,

      Thanks for your excellent comment, one which I am sure many others can resonate with.

      My suggestion would be to stop “trying hard,” and simply sense and feel what is already happening. You are trying to work with this from your thoughts and that, indeed, will cause disturbances. It is not a matter of “knowing” but of actually sensing (experiencing) your feet on the ground, buttocks on the chair, belly moving and so on.

      To understand this more simply, pinch your arm right now. Notice what you experience. It’s not a thought. It’s a sensation. What do your feet feel like touching the ground as the earth supports your weight? If you cannot tell, stamp them on the ground a couple of times, one after the other. What do your buttocks feel like sitting on the chair as the earth supports your weight? If you’re not sure, rock forward and back until the sensation comes alive. Put your hands on your belly. Can you sense or feel the warmth and energy at the place where they touch your belly. If not, press and rub with your hands and enjoy the sensation. (Try the belly breathing practice on the blog).

      “Trying hard,” especially with your thoughts, will make it difficult to experience what I am talking about here. Let go of all of that and just start noticing the sensations of your body.

      There are many other essays on this blog that will help you understand better.

      Thanks again for writing.

      With best wishes,

      Dennis

      • August 21, 2009 8:04 am

        Dennis

        Thanks for your response which was what I needed to understand.

        Regarding breathing and sensation, I am able to understand when I keep my hands on belly and start inhaling it rises and while exhaling it contracts. Now regarding sensation in my body I am able to understand but the breath part of it is still difficult to understand as when I need to feel the breath on my face or hand or any part of the body how am I to do it.

        Kindly advice.

        Regards

        Celes

      • August 21, 2009 8:55 am

        Celes, why do you “need to feel the breath on your face or hand…”? The main thing is to be able to sense your entire body, to have the actual sensation of it (not just think about it) and to notice what parts of your body your breath engages, as well as any inner movements of energy that take place (but the energy aspect probably won’t come until much later, when you’ve had more experience).

        Right now, I recommend that you stay with the living sensation of your belly rising and falling. What does it feel like inside your abdomen as that happens? (I’m not asking you to tell me what it feels like, but for you to actually sense these movements.) Can you feel the space of your abdomen opening and closing? (Again, not for you to tell me but for you to experience.) Work with the “Belly Breathing” practice on a daily basis.

        With warm wishes, Dennis

  2. John permalink
    August 19, 2009 9:50 am

    We generally forget during the course of a day how important our breathing is. Sometimes just gently turning our attention to the breath results in a relaxing of some of the interfering muscles and a deeper inhalation will take place. Almost like a cleansing breath.

    Dennis’ advice is always right on. I wake up regularly in the middle of the nite and use his counting breath technique to get back to sleep. It never fails.

    The article’s secrets are like the Commandments Of Breathing! The big one for me is don’t force. And the next big one is try to get a sense of how the diaphragm works and what may be getting in the way of its’ smooth operation. It’s a journey. Peace.

  3. August 22, 2009 8:05 am

    Dennis,

    Thank you in answer to my query. I am practicising as said.

    With best regards

    Celes

  4. September 9, 2009 7:32 am

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  5. Ikkyu Linji permalink
    October 1, 2009 9:09 pm

    Wonderful post, thank you! Do you think breathing can help me to stop involuntary pc muscle contractions? My pc muscle contracts when I stretch or when I lie on my stomach in my bed. At first I didn’t notice it then I realized it was contracting almost all the time during the day and night… and it has made me lost control over my erection and ejaculation…

    • October 2, 2009 12:02 pm

      You might want to take a look at my book “Breathe Into Being,” which offers some practices for becoming more aware of and releasing muscles in your pelvic and perineum areas as you breathe. There’s no way to know in advance if these practices will stop your involuntary pc muscle contractions, but they may help.

  6. August 7, 2012 8:32 pm

    Thank you Dennis!

    Your article about breathing is the best I have came upon.

    I know how the breathing affects our health and know the consequences of not breathing well. I have always been a lazy breather which was shallow and irregular. It was not because I am stressed, I just felt tired having to take a full breath.

    I have always suffered extreme fatigue. I canot go on through the day without taking nap breaks. It’s embarassing me because people think Im lazy. I thought it was because I am sick or I might be anaemic but the doctors said I am perfectly healthy. And it is not because of age because I am still a teenager.

    And then I tried deep breathing and I was worse than before. I felt dizzy always and it is really tiring.

    I am grateful for your article. I just learned to focus on my breath and its rhythm and intensity will come on itself.

    Now I have enough energy to get me through the day. And I can be awake on the wee hours of the night and not feel drowsy and tired the next day.

    Thanks for sharing.

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