Alive and Well… and Breathing

Sometimes healing starts with the basics—like taking a deep breath.

by Andrea Renskoff
© istockophoto.com

Inhale, exhale, inhale and exhale. We are breathing constantly, yet rarely give it any thought. But the way we breathe has a profound effect not only on our physiology but also on our thought processes, our emotional and spiritual life, and on every action we take.

In today’s hectic and anxiety-provoking world, many people have voluntarily or involuntarily reacted to their surroundings by forming unnatural breathing patterns. Breathing too shallowly, too rapidly or too infrequently, for example, may become habits that can keep someone from achieving their best possible health, and their best possible selves.


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The first tool a physician uses to assess a patient’s health is a stethoscope. Likewise, spa professionals can glean a lot of information about their clients by observing and inquiring about their breath patterns. There are important connections between breath and emotional pain, muscular tension, skin conditions, and even the health of hair and nails.

There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then, there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity.” —Rumi

By learning how to help clients breathe properly, and even control their breath (when this is warranted), you can give them the most powerful tools they’ll ever have to enhance their well-being.

The Air Up There

What exactly is breath? It’s the natural process of ventilation. It begins with our diaphragm, which contracts and moves downward so that inhalation can occur. This allows more room in the chest, and it’s into this created space that the lungs expand. Air is sucked through the nose or mouth into this expansion and enters the alveoli (air sacs). The oxygen in the air then passes into the capillaries (blood vessels).

At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs. On exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its upward position. Air, now filled with carbon dioxide, is forced through the lungs and out the nose or mouth. Meanwhile the oxygenated blood is carried to the heart, which pumps it into the rest of the body.

The base of the brain controls breathing, sending signals down the spine to the nerves and muscles needed to perform this function, says the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (nhlbi.nih.gov). Breathing rates change when the brain detects higher or lower carbon dioxide or oxygen levels in the blood, such as during exercise or when there are irritants in the air.

Emotions also cause changes in breath. When someone is frightened or angry, his or her breathing becomes shallow and fast. Adrenaline is released, which speeds up heart rate. Very rapid breathing can trigger hyperventilation, wherein carbon dioxide levels become so low that other symptoms such as panic, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, numbness or tingling in the extremities, and even fainting can occur.

If you woke up breathing, congratulations! You have another chance.” — Andrea Boydston

Unfortunately, short, fast and shallow breathing can become chronic as a response to stress and tension, as can the habit of holding the breath.

“People tense up and stop breathing during a car accident—it’s the relaxed drunk driver who survives,” points out Marguerite Barnett, M.D., F.A.C.S., P.A. and owner of Mandala Med-Spa & Yoga Shala in Sarasota, Florida. “People hold their breath as a way of hoping nothing will happen. And it’s instinct for us to hold our breath when we are in pain or tense, times when breathing would actually help us.”


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Going with the Flow

Short and shallow breathing restricts the flow of oxygen to our cells, but it’s a natural reflex. “Our animal instinct causes the fight-or-flight response to outside stimuli; we need that short, heightened breath to ramp up our systems to react in a fierce way,” says Ashley Turner, M.A., M.F.T.I., who has combined yoga, spirituality and psychology to develop a powerful therapy and coaching practice (ashleyturner.org). “People who are always tired and have low energy need this kind of activating breath.”

(Note: Involuntary shortness of breath can indicate issues ranging from heart and respiratory diseases to less obvious problems such as changes to the endocrine and hormonal systems, so advise clients to consult their physicians.)

The consequences of long-term shallow breathing and short breathing via the mouth can reverberate throughout the body to affect overall well-being. “Improper breathing can cause long-term buildup of carbon dioxide that can weaken bones and leech nutrients,” says Barnett. “It can have cardiovascular consequences as well, and cause heart dilation.” And the lack of oxygenation can rob the skin, hair and nails of their luster and strength.

Deep breathing through the nose, with inhalation beginning way down in the abdomen, promotes real health benefits. “When we breathe deeply,” says Turner, “we are feeding our blood with oxygen. We are shifting our brain chemistry. We can literally flush out anxiety. We are secreting serotonin, the feel-good hormone.” In short, it’s hard to panic when you’re breathing through your nose.

Learn how to exhale, the inhale will take care of itself.” – Carla Melucci Ardito

Breath is also thought to encourage happiness and well-being. Barnett says, “Look at kids leaping around fearlessly. They have their arms wide open and their legs spread, taking in lots of air.” She advises spa professionals to be aware of their own breath. “I can help clients by syncing my breath with theirs,” she says. “Then I can start breathing slowly and deeply, and they will, too.”


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Exercise Good Breathing

Deep breathing may require conscious effort, especially when our lifestyles don’t lend themselves to it. “Most of us are slumped over our computers where we can’t expand our belly or pay attention to our breath,” Barnett notes. It takes determined mindfulness, she says, to make healthy breathing a habit. To that end, exercises can help.

Ashley Turner offers a visual interpretation of a deep breath. She suggests thinking of the breath as moving upward, then sideways, then down, then sideways again to form a square. Her exercise (to be repeated five times):

“Close your eyes. Turn your attention inward. Notice the body, where you are tense, where you are constricted. Close your mouth and inhale through the nose, focusing upward for four counts. Pause and visualize moving sideways for four counts. Now exhale down for four counts. And pause for four more counts to complete the square.”

Len Kravitz, Ph.D., coordinator of Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (unm.edu), offers the following advice: “For Pranayama breathing, always try to expand the abdominal area. One technique is to place a hand on the front of the stomach and, as you breathe, push on the hand. Try this in a standing position. Or, place the hands just below the ribs and, in a sitting or standing position, try to push the hands away from the ribs as you breathe.”

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh


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Depth of Breath

Breathing is viewed by practitioners from a spiritual perspective. “Breath is a vibration and if you don’t have it you’re not spiritually alive. It’s what animates the body,” says Barnett.

Many religious traditions recognize the power of breath as a way to connect with a higher power or a higher self. Breath is the most important component of yoga and meditation. In Sanskrit, controlling breath is known as pranayama and is thought to be the way to connect the mind and the body.

Controlled breathing has many applications. Concentrating on breath is used to control or distract from pain, as with the Lamaze method of breathing during childbirth. Controlled breathing is needed to produce sound from musical instruments played by mouth. And it is used for centering purposes—to moderate cravings for alcohol or excess food, for example.

“Deep breathing moves us out of the frontal lobe of the thinking mind into more grounded thinking that allows us inspiration and intuition and decision-making,” says Turner. “Breath connects us to our mind in tandem. We can move from the alpha state into deeper delta and theta states.”It’s the space in between breaths,” she says, “that allow those moments when we can connect with our souls.”

For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” —Sanskrit Proverb


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