Do you laugh when you hear this phrase in exercise class? Do you wonder what possible difference it could make where breath comes from? The next time you hear breathing reminders or cues in class, listen up! Those fitness professionals aren’t joking, they are doing their job! Mastering proper breathing technique takes time, practice and a strong muscular foundation, but the rewards are well worth the effort. These include a greater overall sense of calm and happiness, a higher pain threshold, a stronger immune response and increased focus and attentiveness.
Centuries ago, practitioners of the Indian system of yoga observed the positive and negative effects associated with different types of breathing. As such, targeted breathing techniques are an integral part of any yoga method. Modern science has since confirmed the validity of these ancient practices and discovered exactly how our breath impacts vital bodily functions. This additional knowledge can facilitate even greater control over our health than ever before.
At the cellular level, the brain constantly monitors breath speed, then sends signals to the central nervous system accordingly. Anger or fear causes faster breath. Faster breath signals a release of stress hormones that cause the heart to beat faster and the body temperature to rise (among other things). In times of danger, this is extremely useful. However, fast breathing means distress signals are being sent even if there are no obvious threats to confront. This continued state of red alert is very detrimental over the long run.
Studies have shown the power of awareness and visualization. When subjects in a study mimicked an emotional breathing pattern, or when they looked at a picture of a face depicting that emotion, they immediately felt it. But in most cases, awareness alone is not enough to slow breathing down below red alert level. This is where the fitness professional comes in.
We know the brain needs a physical body to act on messages it receives. Breath speed is determined by the muscles used as well as their strength. The larger the area available to hold air, the slower the breath will be. Unfortunately, most people don’t have adequate body awareness (to target the right muscles to create the space) or core strength (to keep the space open during inhalation) to build a large enough area. The average person can only expand the front of the chest, which is insufficient to allow a constant level of slow breathing.
Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, is a more complicated process that starts with a downward contraction of the diaphragm. The ribs then expand out in all directions (front and back) creating a large enough space to facilitate slow breathing. Without proper training or strength, any attempt at abdominal breathing will result in a distended belly and not much else. Fitness professionals can help you develop the necessary mind-body coordination and muscle strength to master slow-breathing techniques. Once you have that down pat your fitness level can progress at a much faster rate while you enjoy a calmer healthier existence. Faster results, healthier body and mind. Are you in? Great! But don’t forget to breathe!
By Kara Palley