Our breathing provides a continuous rhythmic exchange between our lungs and the ocean of air that surrounds us. It is said that humans can live for 40 or more days without food and perhaps as many as 4 without water. However, without oxygen to the brain, we cannot survive more than about 4 minutes.
Given that, it’s the quality of these respiratory movements that determines how pleasurable and beneficial breathing is to our wellbeing. Our rate of respiration shifts with our emotional state: while we might take about 6 slow, deep breaths per minute when we’re relaxed and at rest; breathing becomes fast and shallow with as many as 16 per minute when we’re frightened or anxious. Dr. Andrew Weil1, a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, believes that breathing is so crucial to the body’s ability to heal and sustain itself that he says, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
Let’s consider three habits of breathing: clavicular breathing, chest (thoracic) breathing, and belly (abdominal) breathing. Clavicular breathing uses the shoulders and clavicle to move the air, and is automatically called on most often when people feel stressed, panicked or are struggling for breath. Breathing centered in the chest, with chest and lungs expanding, is the most common kind of breathing; however, the expansion is often restricted by muscular tension around the ribs and abdomen, providing less airflow and more rapid respiration. Abdominal breathing usually needs to be learned and done with intention: Purposely empty your lungs of air, then, as you inhale, inflate the abdominal cavity (the belly) in a 3-D way, allowing it to expand without effort. It seems this deep breathing can activate the vagus nerve and result in a relaxation response from the parasympathetic nervous system; allowing the body to heal, repair and restore.
Belly Breathing is one of the 26 Brain Gym activities included in our “Midline Movements” category. We use Belly Breathing as a way to release stress, increase relaxation, and sustain focus of attention.2 We also use Belly Breathing in teaching students how to access vocal strength and expression for reading and phrasing. The slow expansion of the belly provides a pleasant deepening of inhalation and more complete exhalation, as well as a decrease in the frequency of respiration.
In a recent research study3, diaphragmatic breathing was highly correlated with sustained attention, decreased negative affect, and lower cortisol levels. It has also been associated with reduced fatigue and anxiety (Zeidan et al., 2010), and with the ability of children with ADHD to manage symptoms of inattention (Amon and Campbell, 2008). These studies build on many others connecting diaphragmatic breathing with significant and varied physiological benefits, from oxygenation (Bernardi et al., 1998), to reduced blood pressure (Wang et al., 2010), to states of calm and arousal (Krasnow et all, 2017), and more.
1) Andrew Weil, M.D., Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, audio CD, Sounds True, 1999.
2) Dennison, Paul E. and Dennison, Gail E. Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition, Edu-Kinesthetics, Inc., 2010.
3) The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Xiao Ma, Zi-Qi Yue, Zhu-Qing Gong, Hong Zhang, Nai-Yue Duan, Yu-Tong Shi, Gao-Xia Wei, and You-Fa Li. Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 874. Published online 2017 Jun 6. doi: PMCID: PMC5455070